Clippers crush Timberwolves in return of Kawhi Leonard, fans

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Andrew Greif
·5 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, grabs a rebound away from Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, grabs a rebound away from Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns during the Clippers' 124-105 win Sunday at Staples Center. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

From his seat in Staples Center’s highest deck, Pablo Amaya was one of the most socially distanced fans in the arena Sunday as the Clippers welcomed fans back for the first time in 13 months.

Feeling isolated was not an altogether unusual feeling for Amaya, who was born in Minnesota but raised in Riverside and is now used to feeling like one of the only Timberwolves fans around.

His reward for dressing up in a lime-green Minnesota jersey and shorts, putting his bleach-blond hair in two knots and driving downtown from the Inland Empire for his first live game in four years, was seeing his favorite team drilled by the Clippers 124-105.

“It was expected, especially when I looked at my phone and it said ‘Kawhi’s coming back,’” Amaya said, with a smile and shrug. “But yeah, I’m still having fun.”

Three decks of seating below him, the Clippers were too.

On a night when 1,734 fans were still getting used to watching live basketball again, the Clippers’ offense showed the full range of its league-best shooting with force and precision.

At times, as the Clippers were on their way to making 10 three-pointers in the second quarter alone, the team’s season high for any quarter this season, and a season-high 21 threes overall, there was as much space within Minnesota’s defense as there was in the purposefully distanced grandstands.

Marcus Morris, one of the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooters this season, was left wide open in the corner, a rookie mistake by Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards.

Edwards had collapsed into the paint to help on a drive instead of sticking to Morris in the corner, who drilled the ensuing three-pointer.

Seconds later, Morris was chased by two defenders into the same corner and he made a three-pointer while fading away anyway.

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“I think we’re hitting on all cylinders,” guard Reggie Jackson said.

As Amaya’s instincts suggested, this was perhaps expected. The Timberwolves (15-44) entered owning the NBA’s worst three-point defense, allowing 39% shooting. That number will go up again after the Clippers, on pace to become the league’s best-ever high-volume three-point shooting team, shot 50% from deep. They also made 51% of their shots inside the arc.

“Very fun,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

Kawhi Leonard, playing for the first time since April 9 because of a sore right foot, and under a minutes limit during which his first-quarter minutes were cut to eight instead of his usual 12, needed only 23 minutes to score 15 points, grab 11 rebounds and dish eight assists.

Paul George saw his streak of 30-point games end at five games after he finished with 23 points, playing only 27 minutes. All five starters scored in double figures, and because of it, all five were able to rest during the fourth quarter.

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels, left, and Clippers center Daniel Oturu battle for a rebound.
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels, left, and Clippers center Daniel Oturu battle for a rebound during Sunday's game. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Clippers are now 23-1 this season when scoring at least 120. The NBA’s best three-point offense is also now 21-3 when making at least 16 three-pointers.

Adding injury to insult for Minnesota, with the Clippers’ lead up to 34 early in the fourth quarter, Timberwolves star Karl Anthony-Towns hobbled off the court, careful to put weight on one leg. He mustered 16 points, hampered by defenders who stood between him and perimeter passers trying to feed him the ball.

By guarding Towns with the 6-foot-8 Morris as much as possible, instead of the 7-foot Ivica Zubac, they limited his ability to get open for three-point shots off of pick-and-rolls.

Edwards, the No. 1 draft pick in November, scored a team-high 23 points, but this was a night of lessons for the rookie.

Beyond his mistake guarding Morris, he was left alone guarding Leonard on the right wing in the third quarter, and with no one to help him, Leonard backed him down from the three-point arc to the post for an easy layup, plus a foul.

The Clippers’ first experience playing in front of a reduced-capacity crowd this season was Jan. 1, in Utah.

But after every trip, they would return to an empty Staples Center.

Sunday was not the same as playing in front of nearly 20,000 home fans, Jackson said. At times, piped-in crowd noise was still used to amplify the noise in a still-cavernous building.

But it was a start, complete with a T-shirt cannon wielded by the team’s condor mascot and a standing ovation as the clock ran out on the rout.

“Without any fans it’s just so quiet, and it’s like playing at the YMCA or playing pickup basketball,” said Lue. "We need that energy. I think [fans] helped us out tonight because just coming out of the road trip and having seven games in four nights, having our fans in the building on this game tonight was big for us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.