Future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and others now have left for points elsewhere, but whatever might have cursed their former Los Angeles Clippers team apparently continues.
The Timberwolves’ opponent twice in four nights this week, the Clippers already were reeling after a 4-0 season start Monday when they lost star Blake Griffin for perhaps the next two months because of a knee ligament sprain.
Los Angeles (8-12) was the fourth seed in the Western Conference last season, and a team the Wolves might have to leapfrog this season to get into the playoffs.
Now 18 seasons in the league, Crawford doesn’t believe in hocus-pocus. But he played five seasons there for a franchise he called “family,” long enough to see enough strange things.
“It was just sometimes bad timing,” he said. “I remember, just bad timing.”
He remembers an April 2016 playoff series against Portland that the Clippers led 2-0. In Game 4, Paul broke his hand in one moment and Griffin aggravated a troublesome quad injury the next and suddenly both were gone for the rest of the playoffs.
With both players gone, the rest of the playoffs lasted just two more games.
“This is no lie,” said Crawford, who signed with the Wolves last summer after the Clippers traded him to Atlanta in a summer makeover and the Hawks bought out his contract. “Within a five-minute stretch, you lose your two best players. Like, in the playoffs. It doesn’t happen in October and they have time to come back in January or February. Within a five-minute stretch, we lost our two best players. Things like that, they were just fluke things.”
Longtime Timberwolves fans always could explain their team’s endless woes upon a theory Target Center was built over ancient Indian burial mounds or that a break-dancing timeout entertainer named Joey Two-Step hexed their team before he was pushed out the door.
The Clippers transitioned ownership from bigoted Donald Sterling to tech billionaire Steve Ballmer but never transitioned from a team that averaged nearly 55 regular-season victories during Crawford’s five seasons there to one that found meaningful playoff success.
Built around Paul, Griffin, big man DeAndre Jordan and led by coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers once upon a time were positioned to beat Golden State in the West.
“I loved it, my family loved it,” Crawford said. “Teams change from year to year, but the core guys were there for the duration. My son and Chris’ son were in the same class at one time. It was like a real culture, it felt like family and we had a really, really good team.”
The Clippers won plenty, but they never advanced beyond the second round, not after that 2016 Game 4, not after they led Houston 3-1 during a second-round playoff series and led by 19 points at home in Game 6 a season earlier. They lost that game and the series in seven games after they beat defending NBA champion San Antonio in seven games.
“That was the toughest series I’ve ever been in,” Crawford said. “We felt like if we can get through that, we can get through anything. Then we go up 3-1 on Houston and we think we’re rolling ... Some of it was injuries and a couple times it was self-inflicted, to be honest with you. We just never figured it out.”
Last spring, the Clippers lost in a first-round Game 7 at home to Utah. Paul forced a summertime trade to Houston and the Clippers rebuilt nimbly around Griffin.
Crawford said he always will remember those five seasons fondly, even if some of it might haunt him someday.
“Obviously, stuff happens for a reason,” he said. “There’s fate and all that stuff. But you’re up 19 at home and you lose? You do that 100 times, 99 times it works in our favor. … I’m not sure you ever get over those. I’m not sure you do.
“I may wake up 10 years from now and say, ‘Man, that opportunity we had.’ Those opportunities don’t come around that often.”
Entrusted with taking over a struggling team for the second time in two years, former Timberwolves assistant and new Memphis interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff vows that his team still has its grit and grind, even if Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone and star guard Mike Conley is injured.
“I don’t think we’ve changed that mentality,” said Bickerstaff, who was promoted from associate head coach when the Grizzlies fired David Fizdale last week. “The idea of grit and grind is of toughness, physicality. It’s a makeup and mind-set of not only our guys, but I think it’s a reflection of the city. … Those guys in there are tough guys. They don’t back down from anybody and they’re not afraid of anybody.
“They’re not afraid to get on the floor. They’re not afraid to mix it up. What grit and grind is, it’s a willingness to get dirty and do the hard things most people aren’t willing to do, and I think we still have those guys in that locker room.”
Bickerstaff took over Houston when Kevin McHale was fired early in the 2015-16 season. The Wolves visit Memphis on Monday.
- Don’t look now, but Cleveland has won 10 consecutive games after a 5-7 start. The Cavaliers have done it after LeBron James scored 57 points in a victory over Washington and delivered his 57th career triple-double over Charlotte.
- And get this: Kevin Love is playing defense, something Wolves fans never accused him of doing. He faced big men Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan during the Cavs’ 12-3 November and outplayed many of them on both ends.
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: 6 p.m. vs. L.A. Clippers
Monday: 7 p.m. at Memphis
Wednesday: at L.A. Clippers
TV: FSN (also ESPN on Wed.)
Player to watch: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Whether he helped get coach David Fizdale fired or not, Gasol has more 25-point, 10-rebound games (four) this season as he had in the past two seasons combined.
“Pretty soon it’s going to be hard to take him off the floor.”
Jimmy Butler on Tyus Jones’ play as starting point guard when Jeff Teague was injured.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves