MINNEAPOLIS -- Coach Vinny Del Negro thought it was a little sloppy. Slow start, too many mistakes early. You know, all the things coaches complain about. But the finish? That was just fine.
The Los Angeles Clippers, down by a point with three minutes left in their game with the Timberwolves at Target Center on Wednesday night, finished the game on a 9-2 run.
And so they started a monster, eight-game road trip with a hard-fought win.
"I think it was important to set the tone for this trip," said Jamal Crawford, who came off the bench to score 17 points, nine of them in the fourth quarter. "It doesn't happen that way all the time, but most of the time it sets the tone. You can't win them all until you win the first one."
Blake Griffin scored 26 points with 13 rebounds and Caron Butler had 19 points, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:45 left in the game that gave the Clippers (34-13) the lead for good.
The Wolves (17-25) were able to dress 12 healthy players for the first time in the month with the return of center Nikola Pekovic (17 points) and guard Alexey Shved (12), and they had coach Rick Adelman on the bench for the first time in 12 games, but they still lost for the fifth straight time and for the 10th time in 11 games.
"It's a tough loss," said Adelman, who has been away tending to his ill wife. "It comes down to the same thing. We can't hang our heads if things start going the other direction."
The Clippers started slowly, but picked up steam shortly after the game got a bit physical when Clippers reserve Matt Barnes took exception to a hard pick by Wolves center Greg Stiemsma and tried to deliver a forearm to Stiemsma's throat. Barnes was ejected with 8:26 left in the first half. Moments later, after Stiemsma delivered a hard foul to Grant Hill, both Butler and Ronny Turiaf got in Stiemsma's face.
"Stiemsma hit me with a couple dirty picks early on," Barnes said. "I told him to watch it, and he laughed. And then he hit me with another one and I kind of lost my control."
All it served to do is motivate the Clippers. Down 11 in the second quarter, the Clippers finished the half on a 25-10 run, then started the third quarter strong, building a 11-point lead on DeAndre Jordan's layup 4 minutes into the second half.
To the Wolves credit, they rallied. Luke Ridnour's 3-pointer started a 7-0 run. Minnesota pulled within five entering the fourth quarter, then tied it for first of three times in the final quarter on J.J. Barea's three-point play at 6:56.
Then it was game on.
The game was tied at 80, 82 and 84. With 3:17 left Crawford hit a 20-footer for a one-point Clippers lead, only to have Pekovic follow with a layup for an 88-87 Wolves lead with 3 minutes left.
Out of a 20-second timeout, Eric Bledsoe found Butler in the corner, and his 3-pointer gave the Clippers a two-point lead. Ricky Rubio missed at the other end, then Crawford hit one of two free throws. Andrei Kirilenko's three-point miss was followed by Griffin's three-point play, and the game was all but over.
"Tonight my number was called," Butler said. "I was ready, my teammate found me in rhythm, and that's what we needed."
According to Del Negro, the team will need more going forward. "We'll have to play better as the trip goes on," he said.
But he'll take it. The Wolves? They just need to figure out how to get a win, period.
"I think we're a nice team, we've got a bunch of nice guys," Barea said. "But I think we need to be a little tougher."
NOTES: With Chris Paul out of the lineup with a bruised kneecap, Griffin has become more of a passer, averaging 6.5 assists per game over the previous four games, nearly double his career average. "With Chris out we're making Blake be more of a facilitator," Clippers coach Vinny Del Degro said. ... Paul missed his fifth straight game and his eighth overall. But Del Negro said both Paul and Chauncey Billups -- who has missed all but three games with foot tendinitis -- could both return on the Clippers road trip. ... Shved will be the team's lone representative at All Star Weekend. He will play in the Rising Stars Challenge. Shved is averaging 10.7 points and 4.6 assists in 36 games. Interestingly, neither Rubio nor Derrick Williams were chosen. With Shved and Pekovic back after missing five games with injuries, the Wolves had 12 healthy players available for the first time since Dec. 26, a span of 16 games.