LOS ANGELES – Kevin Garnett didn’t play Monday night against the Clippers in Los Angles because of a sore knee and what coach Flip Saunders deemed an opportunity for Garnett to rest, so rookie power forward Adreian Payne did in an 89-76 loss at Staples Center.
He sure did.
Relegated to the NBA’s D League or near the end of Atlanta’s bench as recently as a month ago, Payne was what Saunders called the lone “spark” in a game when the Wolves lost to the Clippers for the second time in a week and for the third and final time this season.
Payne made his third career NBA start and delivered a 16-point, 15-rebound double-double in 37 minutes — career highs across the board — that both brought his teammates off the bench in delight and caused a hostile sellout crowd to murmur in wonder.
Payne did so with that 7-foot-4 wingspan and an athleticism that intrigued Saunders before last summer’s draft, until Saunders opted for guard Zach LaVine’s promise instead when he made the 13th overall pick.
At Monday morning’s shootaround, Payne said he’s grown more comfortable by the game with Saunders’ strategies, the fast-moving NBA game and his place in both.
That night, he showed just how comfortable in a performance that along with center Nikola Pekovic’s hard work and 12-point, 10-rebound night were about the only things Saunders felt good about afterward.
“Outside of that, I couldn’t really put any finger on anyone who played with a great amount of energy and played well,” Saunders said. “No question AP was the one guy who was physical, aggressive, didn’t back down. Some of our guys backed down when they got physical and hands-y with us. When I’m having to beg the referees for all kinds of calls, it usually means they’re having their way with us.”
The Clippers’ physical nature manifested itself with another statistically monstrous 20-point, 17-rebound game from center DeAndre Jordan, but it was Payne who gave as good as he got with a third-quarter slam dunk in Jordan’s face that deserved to be preserved on a poster somewhere.
“It felt good,” Payne said simply about that dunk. “It’s part of the game. Everybody gets dunked on.”
Payne followed that minutes later by driving through the Clippers defense past Jordan for another dunk during a 7-for-12 shooting night.
“I was laying it up,” he said of a first half when the Clippers took control of the game with a 23-14 second quarter. “I told myself at halftime I have to be more aggressive. I saw how they were playing, that’s what happened.”
Payne’s shooting night included those two soaring, ferocious dunks and some soft jumpers as well.
“He took good shots, he had a spark,” Saunders said. “Our young guys — (Andrew) Wiggins and Gorgui (Dieng) and (Zach) LaVine — they looked tired. Whether it’s the amount of minutes they’ve played that’s catching up to them, they didn’t seem to have the same energy they’ve had.”
Losers Sunday afternoon at Golden State, the Clippers came home to Staples Center on Monday and played without star forward Blake Griffin and sixth-man Jamal Crawford and with star guard Chris Paul playing on a knee bruised the day before in Oakland.
Griffin has missed the last month following surgery to resolve a staph infection in his elbow. Crawford missed his third consecutive game because of a calf contusion he sustained a week earlier in a 110-105 victory over the Wolves at Target Center.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he isn’t certain when either Griffin or Crawford will be back, but predicted Griffin will return before Crawford does, perhaps within a week.
Meanwhile, Paul played on, even though he said he arrived at the arena Monday night not expecting to do so. He made only one of six shots and scored two points but still controlled the game with his smarts and 15 assists.
“I don’t know if I can play,” Paul said. “But that just shows you how well D.J. [Jordan] can dunk and how well J.J. [Redick] can shoot.”