Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW and NBATV
The nearly-.500 Minnesota Timberwolves ride into Portland to face the exactly-.500 Trail Blazers tonight. Unfortunately this should be a good matchup. The 'Wolves play decently on the road, have some talent, and can hit the Blazers where it hurts if they play well. The Blazers play well at home in general but are working on back-to-back blowouts and have several recent home losses. They also have some talent and could hit the 'Wolves right back if they cared to. The big question now is whether they care to. Half the team looks motivated. The other half look like they should be wearing t-shirts that say, "I'm an expiring contract, trade me!"
Because of the quirky schedule this year these two teams have not met yet. They're going to face each other twice in the next four days, though, so Portland fans should get a good look at Minnesota's style. They're streaky, alternating between winning 3-4 and losing 3-4 in a row. Right now they're on a two-game losing streak, having fallen to the Lakers and Suns. They've beaten the likes of the Clippers, Mavericks, and Spurs this year but also lost to the Raptors, Cavaliers, and the aforementioned Suns. Their offense is up and down, ending up in the middle in most categories...less from consistent execution than sporadic play. They can score in the 100's or in the 80's any given night. They don't run and they don't shoot threes well. They do draw fouls and make their extra points at the line. They're good on the offensive glass. They also turn over the ball. Mix that all together and you've got...random. If you can force them out of their game they'll look horrible. If you let them get second-chance points and beat you in the lane or with open mid-range shots they look great. As Blazer fans know, young teams tend to thrive on their offense. Confidence is a dangerous thing. It takes a willing opponent to get the 'Wolves rolling but when they do, they're hard to stop.
The other end of the floor also screams, "Young Team". The 'Wolves don't get back in transition, don't have intimidation in the paint, don't rotate well, don't get out to shooters. They don't block shots. They don't force turnovers. Why do they not suck on defense, then? Sometimes they get on a roll and they rebound well. Most defense is good defense if you limit your opponent to one shot.
Minnesota's main man is Lake Oswego refugee Kevin Love. He's averaging 24.5 points and 14 rebounds this season. Perhaps more impressively his defense has improved from ghastly to pretty decent. He's no Buck Williams but he can hold his own now. That's more than can be said for Michael Beasley who is rapidly wearing out his welcome in Minnesota because he's a one-dimensional player (think offense) who isn't even getting his dimension right. Both Love and Beasley are hurting in the shooting department this year, Love because his offense is drifting farther outside than in past years and Beasley because he's Beasley. Don't take too much comfort, though. Love will still pour 25 on you and Beasley could at any given moment.
Ricky Rubio is the hot new story for the Timberwolves this season. He dazzles with his passing, averaging 8 assists per night, at least a few off of sneaky moves. His shooting percentage of 36% is less dazzling, though he's at least average at hitting the three. He's over 2 steals per game though, so you have to watch out. Rubio starts alongside Luke Ridnour who's shooting 45% and helping out with dribbling and ball-movement while Rubio adjusts to the league. At least some of Minnesota's defensive inconsistency can be traced to starting two point guards.
6'7" Wesley Johnson starts at small forward ahead of Beasley, an indication of how far the latter has fallen because Johnson is having trouble doing anything but defending. Ex-Blazer Martell Webster might be more qualified than either to assume the position but his chronically injured back prevents him from playing big minutes.
Center Nikola Pekovic has used good rebounding and efficient shooting (plus a little bit of his own defensive improvement) to assume most of the center minutes even though veterans Darko Milicic (himself injured a little) and Brad Miller are on the squad.
The 'Wolves aren't deep, they aren't that athletic, they aren't particularly experienced, they don't complement each other fully, and they're not polished. They've got just enough talent to be dangerous on any given night and crushingly so when you make the game easy for them. The main thing for the Blazers tonight will be to snap out of their malaise and play like they want this game, showing it primarily through their work on the boards. If you see the Blazers standing around expect the 'Wolves to rip away this game happily. But if Portland puts in any kind of blue-collar effort their superior overall talent and depth plus the homecourt advantage should tell the tale. We'll see how much life this team has in them tonight.
This is one of those games where winning would be nice but losing would be horrible. Let's hope the good Blazer team comes to the fore.
Read about Minnesota's adventures at Canis Hoopus.
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