The Clippers had an opportunity to move to the top of the Western Conference, and it was up to them to take advantage of the situation.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that had the best record in the West and a half-game lead over the Clippers.
The Clippers vowed to be ready because so much was at stake and also because coach Tyronn Lue said one of their goals is to secure the best record in the NBA by season’s end.
But things didn’t work out for the Clippers, who couldn’t overcome the Timberwolves’ stingy defense in a 121-100 loss Monday at Crypto.com Arena.
As a result, the Clippers dropped to third in the West and are 1½-games behind Minnesota and a half-game behind Oklahoma City at 35-16.
“They played better than we did,” Lue said. “Out-coached us, out-played us, everything. So, they played better than we did tonight. But I thought just the physicality and attention to detail, they were better.”
The Timberwolves have proved their worth all season on the defensive end, holding teams to the lowest scoring totals (107.1 points per game) and lowest field-goal percentage (44.9%) in the NBA.
And the Clippers found that defense a big problem for much of the first half.
Paul George, who became the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers, fired off a three late in the second quarter to give the Clippers their first lead of the game, and James Harden followed that with a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to give the Clippers a four-point halftime lead.
In the third quarter, however, the Clippers experienced the Timberwolves’ sterling defense. Minnesota held the Clippers to 19 points on 35% shooting in the quarter while scoring 40 points on 63.2%. The Clippers shot 40.5% from the field in the game.
That put the Clippers in a 17-point hole, and that hole got deeper in the fourth quarter when they went down by 24. Lue pulled his starters with 4:56 left.
Lue said Minnesota’s size and defense “definitely affected us,” but he saw other issues as well.
“If we’re not making quick decisions, playing the game the right way, they are going to make you look bad offensively,” Lue said. “And that’s what they did for the whole game. I thought their length bothered us. I thought us holding the ball and being stagnant really hurt us. If we’re not going to get it side to side and make quick decisions… they are the No. 1 defensive team in the league for a reason. So, you got to make quick decisions, be smart about it and you definitely can’t turn the ball over like we did to start the third quarter.”
Read more: Paul George rallies Clippers past Pistons with 15 fourth-quarter points
Kawhi Leonard, who was eight for 17 from the field, and George, who was five for 16 from the field, both finished with 18 points. James Harden, who shot five for 13 from the field, had 17 points.
But that was not enough to offset the 17 points, 10 rebounds and four rebounds from Rudy Gobert, the 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds from Anthony Edwards and 24 points from Karl-Anthony Towns.
“It’s important just to get better and get every win,” Leonard said. “That’s what we are focused on. That’s what I focus on and just how we’re playing the basketball game. And if it seems like we’re trending up with our play, then that’s what matters and that’s the carryover you need into the playoffs.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.