Despite never playing in the NBA’s play-in tournament, the Clippers know all too well what awaits.
Eight months after they traded Patrick Beverley, the hyper-intense engine fueling their transition out of the Lob City era, the veteran guard stands in his former team’s way as the Minnesota Timberwolves host the Clippers on Tuesday for a chance to earn the Western Conference’s seventh seed, and with it a first-round playoff matchup against second-seeded Memphis.
The loser hosts the winner of the other play-in game, between ninth-place New Orleans and 10th-place San Antonio on Wednesday, for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Beverley donned the jersey of former teammate Ivica Zubac and sat courtside for a Clippers game before February’s All-Star break in a signal of how close he and Zubac remain, among others within the organization who still adore Beverley. Of the 947 people who retweeted a Timberwolves tweet on Feb. 6 saying “RT if you love @patbev21,” one was Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.
Zubac, who talks to Beverley almost every day, called the matchup “weird,” being on the other side of Beverley’s ability to play both mind games and highly effective basketball.
“We’re not on talking terms right now,” Zubac said Saturday, with a laugh.
If there was any question about Beverley’s intensity for Tuesday‘s matchup, consider that in Sunday’s meaningless season finale, he was ejected, then called an official “trash.”
The Timberwolves had made the postseason once since 2004, but in Beverley’s first season their 46 wins doubled last season total and positioned them seventh in the West, four games ahead of the Clippers, though Los Angeles won the season series 3-1. Outscored by an average of 5.7 points per game last season, Minnesota has outscored opponents by 2.7 points, the NBA’s ninth-best plus/minus rating.
Containing Karl-Anthony Towns, the center and self-described best-shooting big man in NBA history, is the first priority for the Clippers after he averaged 24.6 points and 9.8 rebounds this season. Guard D’Angelo Russell, who missed three of the four Clippers matchups, is healthy and averaging 18.1 points. Anthony Edwards, last year’s effusive rookie of the year, scored 49 as recently as April 7.
While Clippers star Paul George pointedly said he would not allow the narrative around the play-in to center on Beverley versus the Clippers, George later attributed much of the substance behind Minnesota’s best record in four years to the addition of Beverley.
“[Towns] is one of my closest friends in the league and so I told him immediately when they got Pat Bev that he’s going to change a lot of stuff; whether it is good or bad, he is going to make an impact,” George said. “And he’s doing that. Pat Bev has been really the battery and the engine that they needed to have. They have so much talent over there but they needed someone to kind of push them.
“That is what I am seeing, a team that is competing now, they play hard, they’re talented and they got, just like us, a lot of guys that are versatile.”
If Beverley’s persona added something the Timberwolves lacked, one of his strengths has accentuated one of the team’s own. Beverley is one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounding guards and the Timberwolves grabbed offensive rebounds at the NBA’s eighth-highest rate. The Clippers conversely grabbed the second-fewest defensive rebounds, though in their matchups with Minnesota they allowed fewer offensive rebounds than their season average.
Beverley was entering the final season of his contract last summer when he claimed on a podcast that the Clippers front office, led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, presented a salary number for a contract extension he viewed as “borderline disrespectful.”
“It was a heated little conversation and L. Frank is my guy,” Beverley said on the “Old Man and the Three” podcast. “Man, love him to death, that’s my guy. And I looked him in his face and told him and my agent, man, L. Frank knows he has to trade me. If he can’t pay me, gotta trade me. From that point he told me [to] give me my teams and Minnesota was in my top three.”
The Clippers acquired Eric Bledsoe believing he could be more durable and fit their needs as a drive-first guard — and that his $15-million salary could prove useful in future trades. In February the Clippers sent Bledsoe to Portland in a package that netted Robert Covington and Norman Powell, two significant pieces of the rotation Beverley will now face.
“Pat embodies a lot of the qualities that we really, really value,” Frank said in September. “So, yeah, it’s extremely painful to trade any player but to trade Pat was very, very painful for us. Love him.”
One misconception about trades, Frank felt then, was that a trade ends the relationship between a player and his former team. He said that isn’t the case, especially with Beverley.
“Forever, Pat will be a part of our lives,” he said.
Beverley is back in the Clippers’ life again. Their path to victory and the playoffs now includes keeping him out of their heads.