LOS ANGELES – After Friday’s loss at Portland, Timberwolves two-time All Star Kevin Love claimed he can’t have a rivalry with Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge no matter how intense the matchup gets because those things just aren’t made until the playoffs.
The playoff remained a long ways off Wednesday night in Los Angeles as well, but that didn’t stop the Wolves and Clippers from continuing a series that turned both contentious and entertaining last season with a worthy Hollywood sequel this time around.
The Clippers’ 101-95 victory at Staples Center wasn’t decided until the final 16 seconds, when center DeAndre Jordan’s emphatic alley-oop slam dunk put the punctuation on All-Star guard Chris Paul’s fourth-quarter performance.
For sure, Wednesday’s game didn’t deliver the sheer theatrics of last January’s game, which the Wolves won on Kevin Love’s strut-off three-pointer at the final buzzer that ended a most unlikely comeback.
This time, it merely featured Paul’s fourth-quarter precision on a night when the Wolves never quite went away even though they were playing for the fourth time in six nights on the road and even though they played without injured starting forward Andrei Kirilenko.
On the same day Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio was cleared by his surgeon for contact practice, Paul scored 10 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter. The Clippers used a 10-2 run over nearly five minutes to turn an 83-80 deficit with 7:43 left into a 90-85 lead with three minutes left that they never lost.
“Chris Paul -- their leader and best player --he made plays for them,” Love said, searching for an explanation of a decisive fourth quarter when the Clippers outscored the Wolves 25-18. “That’s the only thing I can think of because we fought them. He’s the best point guard in the league. He makes things happen for them.”
The Clippers welcomed veteran guard Chauncey Billups back to action and back to the starting lineup Wednesday for the first time since he tore his Achilles tendon nearly 10 months ago.
“It was huge to have Chauncey out there,” Paul said. “I’ve been waiting for that for a long time. I just felt much more comfortable. It’s a big difference talking to him with a uniform on than a suit.”
Billups started his night by needing just 42 seconds to hit first three-pointer and he ended it by lobbing that alley-oop pass that Jordan threw down for the night’s concluding highlight.
“I was just so excited to be back out there,” said Billups, the former Timberwolves guard. “It has been such a long road back. Just to be out there was great.”
In between, the Wolves pounded the Clippers 52-35 on the backboards, but they couldn’t overcome their 18 turnovers nor could they sustain the kind of energy needed to overcome an opponent that suffered an embarrassing home loss to New Orleans two nights earlier.
The Wolves missed Kirilenko’s defensive presence on a night when he couldn’t play because of back spasms. Coach Rick Adelman started veteran Josh Howard in Kirilenko’s place because he was the only natural small forward left healthy.
Adelman placed the blame not on road trip fatigue – the Wolves finished this Western swing 1-3 – or his team playing shorthanded once again. Instead, he pointed to a clunky offense that shot 25 percent in the second half and stalled once again for substantial stretches in the fourth quarter.
“It could be that, but you can’t give in to it,” Adelman said of fatigue and Kirilenko’s absence. “They got very physical in the fourth quarter and we need to respond to that. They’re a little bit more experienced than we are. Whatever happens out there, you have to fight through it. If they’re going to get physical, we have to get physical and we’ve got to finish shots. And they did a better job than we did.”
Afterward, Love sat at his locker after recording his fifth double-double – 19 points, 12 rebounds – in his fifth game back with that broken right hand wrapped in a dripping ice bag. He shook his hand during the game after getting the hand whacked, but said after the game that it “shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”
“Without A.K., it was tough for us,” Love said. “I thought we still fought. If a couple plays would have gone our way, we would have won that game.”
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