Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell lead Clippers to win over Timberwolves

There was no hiding from the significance of this game against the best team in the Western Conference.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been a thorn in the Clippers’ basketball world this season, using their immense size and defensive prowess to thwart L.A. in the first two meetings, the last a 21-point beating.

But Sunday presented the Clippers an opportunity to stand up to the Timberwolves, which L.A. did during a tense and tight 89-88 win in front of a noisy, packed house that included Clippers owner Steve Ballmer at Target Center.

“These are the gritty games that you got to win,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “On the road, scoring 89 points, shooting 38% (actually 37.6%) from the field and to come out with a win against a very good team, just says a lot about your ballclub.”

Kawhi Leonard was up to the task, scoring the Clippers’ final five points on his way to 32.

Leonard had to be the star for the Clippers with teammates James Harden and Paul George not having good shooting games.

“I just try to play the same game, try to home in on just me, because it could turn into hero basketball,” said Leonard, who was 12 for 26 from the field. “We’ve been harping about trying to move the ball, especially against good teams like this. So, I just kept moving it, trusting it and the shots came to me and I made a few.”

Norman Powell, a top candidate for the NBA’s sixth man of the year, added to the cause with 24 points off the bench by going six of eight from three-point range. Daniel Theis was good with 13 rebounds.

With Harden (four points, 10 assists) missing all 10 of his shots, including six three-pointers, and George (15 points) missing 11 of his 16 shots, Powell was needed to fill the scoring void.

“I just wanted to come in and provide energy, whatever way that looked,” Powell said. “I was being aggressive.”

The Timberwolves, who had won the last four games against the Clippers, entered the game a confident group that owned the best record in the West, second-best in the NBA.

Minnesota’s front-line size of 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert, 7-0 forward Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-9 forward Jaden McDaniels is a big reason why the Timberwolves are rated so high on defense.

They allow just 106.6 points per game, which is first in the league, and they allow teams to shoot just 44.5% from the field, which is also first.

So, that was the mountain the Clippers had to climb as a team with the fourth-best record in the West.

Getting 7-foot center Ivica Zubac back after he missed the last two games with an undisclosed illness provided the Clippers with some size to combat Minnesota.

But when the Clippers got down 16 points in the first half, during which their first two possessions were turnovers and the next three were missed shots, they had to pick themselves up to stay in this important game.

The Clippers did by playing stellar defense from the second quarter until the end of the game.

They had not shown much resistance in the first quarter, the Clippers letting the Timberwolves make 50% of their shots.

But the Clippers were unyielding the rest of the way, limiting the Timberwolves to 37.5% shooting in the second, 31.8% in the third and 36.4% in the all-important fourth in which Minnesota scored just 20 points.

Anthony Edwards led Minnesota with 27 points.

“Once we switched our defense and went back to our normal coverages and not blitzing [double teaming] Ant [Edwards], I think we were more solid [on defense],” Lue said.

“I love the way we stayed resilient. I loved the way we kept playing defense,” Lue added. “This was an old-school, 1985 game. But I loved the way we kept competing and kept guarding and defending. … Overall, that was one of our complete games defensively.”

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