During a media session Monday, a reporter asked forward Jaden McDaniels what he learned from the three losses the Timberwolves had against the Clippers earlier this season.
“To be honest, I don’t even remember the first three Clipper games,” McDaniels said.
The same can’t be said for his coach, who recalls those games all too well.
“I remember them,” coach Chris Finch. “Oh yeah, I remember them.”
Finch remembers the Clippers kicking the Wolves’ behind on those three separate occasions, but a lot of time has passed between Nov. 13, the date of that last loss, and now.
The Wolves feel like they have grown and matured, and their 42-28 record since that date reflects that. That helped earn Finch a contract extension that lasts the next four seasons, a deal the team announced Monday. Despite those losses earlier in the season, there likely won’t be any drastic changes to how the Wolves normally play.
“One of the dangers is you can overreach in a one-off,” Finch said. “We’re going to be prepared. We’re going to have a game plan.”
Finch might get some votes in the coach of the year race for the job he did this year; so might his counterpart Tuesday, Tyronn Lue.
The Clippers, who have played the entire season without Kawhi Leonard (knee surgery), were without Paul George for 51 games, most of those because of a torn ligament in his right elbow. George has returned in time for the play-in. They also acquired guard Norman Powell and former Wolves forward Robert Covington, who might help defend his former teammate and good buddy Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Clippers were one of the first teams this season to employ a tactic other teams copied to defend Towns — guarding him with a smaller power forward and bringing a center on a double-team. Towns didn’t play when the Wolves beat the Clippers in January, when both teams had several COVID-related absences. He did play in those three losses, and he averaged 15.3 points on 42% shooting, well below his season averages of 24.6 points and 53%.
The Wolves have learned how best to counteract that with cutting and spacing around Towns.
“That was something that, in my three years of playing, I haven’t seen that,” center Naz Reid said. “So when I first saw it, it was kind of confusing. But we’ve seen it over time and time and time again.”
On defense, guard Anthony Edwards said the Wolves’ mission was simple, or at least it sounded simple.
“Stop Paul George,” Edwards said. “We stop Paul George, we win the game.”
Edwards displayed the dichotomy the young, postseason-inexperienced Wolves are going to have to balance emotionally on Tuesday.
In one breath, Edwards said he felt like Tuesday was “the biggest game of my career since I’ve been playing basketball.”
“I feel like we got to come out and do what we got to do,” Edwards said.
Then about 30 seconds later, when asked about managing his emotions in such an amped-up atmosphere, Edwards said: “To me it’s just another game. It’s a big game, but to me in my head, it’s just another game in the regular season.”
The Wolves have Patrick Beverley to remind them of that. Beverley was coy when the guard was asked to discuss what he might have told the Wolves about his former team.
“Game of basketball hasn’t changed. Put the orange ball up to the hoop,” Beverley said. “Try to stop the other team from doing it at a high rate.”
But he did say he advised the team not to stray too far from what they do to prepare for a regular-season game. The implications shouldn’t cause them to change anything.
He might also begin a new pregame tradition for some fans, and some might deploy it to calm some nerves ahead of the Wolves’ third postseason home game since 2004.
“My biggest thing I told the guys, just don’t change anything,” Beverley said. “If you like to go to movies before a game, stay with your routine. If you like to drink a couple beers before the game, stay with your routine. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”