A battle at the top of the Western Conference will commence on Monday when the much-improved Los Angeles Clippers play host to the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves.
While the first-place Timberwolves have been at or near the top of the conference all season, the second-place Clippers have been transformed into a title contender following a November trade for star James Harden.
After losing its first five games of the Harden era, Los Angeles has risen to the forefront of the West with a 27-6 record since the start of December.
The latest victory for the Clippers came Saturday, but it was far from the mismatch that was expected. Los Angeles trailed by double digits in the third quarter against the NBA-worst Detroit Pistons and were down five heading into the fourth before coming out on top.
Paul George had 33 points and Kawhi Leonard added 24 as the Clippers turned a 36-point fourth quarter into a 112-106 victory. Los Angeles won despite getting crushed in the rebounding battle, where Detroit had a 57-35 advantage.
The Clippers did not have an offensive rebound in a game for the first time in franchise history, becoming the fifth NBA team to be shut out in that department since stat tracking on the offensive glass began in 1973-74. Those teams have gone 4-1.
“You’re not going to play great every night,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who altered the course of the game by switching to a smaller, faster lineup, which picked up the tempo but also led to the rebounding issues. “I give our guys credit for just staying with it, being resilient and finding a way to win this game.”
The Timberwolves arrive in Los Angeles well-rested after last playing Thursday, when they earned a 129-105 road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Anthony Edwards scored 26 points to go along with nine assists. Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and Rudy Gobert had 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Veteran point guard Mike Conley had 18 points and nine assists.
“Offensively, I thought we found a lot of really good shots, and we didn’t turn the ball over,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said after his team shot 55.2 percent from the floor and had eight turnovers, third fewest of the season. “(We) didn’t force anything when it wasn’t there.”
Minnesota was 30-11 on Jan. 18 after a four-game winning streak that included a 109-105 home victory over the Clippers on Jan. 14. But the Timberwolves have gone 6-5 since, with losses to the Charlotte Hornets and San Antonio Spurs in that stretch.
However, Minnesota still holds a half-game lead over the Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference.
After deferring to his teammates with nine points on just five shots in a blowout victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31, Edwards has averaged 29.5 points over the past four games.
Monte Morris, who was acquired in a trade with the Detroit Pistons on Thursday, is expected to make his Timberwolves debut on Monday. He has played just six games this season because of a quadriceps injury.
“I just need to ramp up my strength and conditioning,” Morris said. “I played in games. I’m not dead tired, but I know there’s another notch I can get to, and I know I can get to that real, real soon.”