The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 122-110, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, dropping Portland's record to 18-19.
I don't think I've ever written about this before, but I love bank heist movies. Thanks to Netflix's endless library and superior personalization capabilities I've seen maybe 100 such movies over the last few years. At some point, I exhausted the watchable English language movies and moved on to the French ones. I don't speak French so sometimes I watch the movies -- especially the planning, robbery and fallout scenes -- without subtitles. It's basically the same plot every time, the physical action and reactions are more than enough to tell the story.
Is it sick that I enjoy trying to read fictional people's expressions on mute as they are acting out getting their lives threatened and valuables taken? Maybe, that's a question for a different day and a doctor with a different pay grade. For our purposes here, I provide this background because, if you were to observe Portland's post-game locker room on mute or in a foreign language, you would be able to gauge things perfectly. This group of men reacted like their souls were stolen on that court.
The Timberwolves scored a season-high 122 points, on the road, to pass Portland in the Northwest Division standings. It was a plain, old-fashioned stick-up, an unexpected humiliation, the kind of act that leaves one feeling helpless, at a loss for words, with nightmare flashbacks of the gruesome details sure to follow.
"It's pride now," Blazers forward Gerald Wallace said, living the nightmare. "S***, it's pride. We know we're a better team than this. We know we're a better team than some of the teams we're losing to. This is hurting right now because we know we're a better team than what we're playing. It's all about pride now. It's about guys standing in front of the mirror, taking pride in themselves, this team and this organization."
The Timberwolves strode into the Rose Garden, having lost 16 consecutive games in the head-to-head match-up with the Blazers, automatic weapons drawn. Minnesota scored 40 points in the first quarter, nailing 8 of 10 threes as a team while getting 15 points from All-Star forward Kevin Love and maximum, concentrated effort from Martell Webster.
Asked to describe the locker room immediately after the game, Blazers guard Jamal Crawford said it straight, as if providing a witness's account: "People sitting around a little bit more. People sitting around in shock a little bit."
It didn't help that the men behind the masks were familiar faces. Former Blazers coach Rick Adelman. Former Portland sportswriter turned GM David Kahn. Former Lake Oswego High standout Kevin Love. Former Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno. Former Blazers guard and broadcaster Terry Porter. No, it didn't help. That made it much, much worse.
Minnesota won the fourth quarter, 38-28, bullying Portland in the paint when it mattered and refusing to back down when Blazers center Joel Przybilla and Wallace went to their respective bags of veteran tricks. A win had been assumed coming in to Saturday because of recent history, but the kid brother who got bowled over and blown out last year (and the year before, and the year before) never buckled this time around.
This loss -- stunning in its direct manner, ruthless execution and swiftness -- was taken personally, perceived as an identity-altering violation.
"We started out as such a good home team, and we're messing that up," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews said, staring straight ahead into the space above reporters' heads after scoring 8 points in 23 minutes.
"Irritated. Frustrated. Tired of what's going on," Matthews continued. "I think everybody is baffled. No one really knows what's going on. Dropping under .500 is a reality check."
Blazers coach Nate McMillan has attributed recent losses to effort and to talent disparity. With this one, he sounded like the local police captain, reviewing tape of the bank security guards caught totally by surprise, dropping to the floor with the rest of the customers, taking off their watches and laying face down without pulling the alarm or exchanging fire until all the loot was long gone.
"You give up a 40-point quarter in your building and we get smacked around before we start to realize that we're in a ball game," McMillan said, lips quivering. "And then we play. We show that we have this capability but we've got to get smacked upside the head... You've got to come out with that. You can't flip a switch."
The Blazers, particularly Wallace, did try to flip a switch during the second and third quarters, but by that point Minnesota had established a sufficient comfort factor and confidence level that the fourth quarter was going to be a battle, one way or another. Given how this season has gone, it was no surprise that Love was able to dominate crunch time and the pieces around him were able to provide sufficient support to put away the Blazers.
Make no mistake, Love was the biggest, baddest bandit in the building: 42 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and zero turnovers in 43 minutes. He showed the entire arsenal: dunking at the rim, finishing in the paint, knocking down the three-point shot and getting to the foul line eight times.The boxscore said four offensive rebounds but it felt like 40, and he thoroughly won the All-Star showdown with LaMarcus Aldridge for the first time in his career. Aldridge stuck to his recent "no excuses" mantra, sounding like a man who knew he simply got beaten on the draw.
"He dominated, he definitely dominated the game tonight," Aldridge told CSNNW.com, after scoring 14 points and grabbing 7 rebounds. "I didn't play well as I should have to help my team win. He played great and his team won tonight."
McMillan has preached to his team since the All-Star break that Portland needed to take the games before the team's upcoming 7-game road trip seriously. We know that he's preached it to his players because he's preached it to the media.
But it's that bank movie plot again. After the robbery, the victims start looking over their shoulders. They change their routines and decide not to go out after dark. They clutch their purses more tightly. They ask themselves if they've been taking their security for granted all along. They start seeing shadows around the corner.
"We have one more, another tough one, before we hit this long road stretch where we haven't been so hot," Matthews said, verbalizing that future fear, despite the repeated warnings, a fear that seems to have hung over Portland during this stretch of three straight demoralizing losses.
As robbery movies progress deeper into the psychological, the trauma starts to kick in and do weird things, forcing tough questions. Will my life ever be the same? How do I move on from this? Some characters try to grasp back for the innocent good old days in hopes of fashioning a path to move forward.
"We're in a dogfight just to get into the playoffs," Wallace said. "We know we're a better team than that. We should be up there with the Oklahoma City. I feel like we're one of the best teams in the Western Conference. I think we proved that at the beginning of the season."
"We should all be frustrated," Crawford agreed. "There's no fun in this. There's no fun in losing games. We're professionals and a good team. If it was a bad team, it would make sense and you would accept losing. Around here, that's not good enough. Being average isn't good enough."
But that team is gone. Reclaiming it in that exact, previous form isn't possible. The competition has changed. The losses have piled up. The lineups have been modified. The minutes have adjusted. The money is out of the safe. The getaway vehicle is peeling around the corner. The victims are slowly picking themselves up off the ground, dusting off their clothes, wishing they could turn back the clock.
The self-doubt that builds following repeated losses is there. They know it, they show it and it's apparent to everyone. You could turn off the sound on the movie and still see it plain as day. You could close your eyes and still sense it.
"We're going to reveal who we are coming up here soon," said Crawford, who finished with 23 points, including a bunch after the result was decided. "We're going to show if we're the team that can dig ourselves out of it and show we have a lot of character and heart or if we're going to lay down. It goes one way or the other. There's no in between."
These were the right words but they lacked conviction when delivered.
The thing about heist movies is that the final reckoning always comes for the robbers, not the victims. The robbers push too hard, or they get sloppy, or they get greedy, or a love triangle breaks up their camaderie. Something ensures that the jig is up. Whatever that cause, there's a downfall, a resolution towards justice.
But the victims? They deal with the psychological questions and then are generally forgotten, pushed aside so that the real story can develop on center stage. Sort of like lottery teams.
"I'm tired of losing, man," Wallace said, scratching at his shoulder. "We got to get on the same train and get this thing moving before they shut our station down."
Random Game Notes
- Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 12 assists (10 in the first quarter), 2 steals and one purple Justin Bieber backpack.
- John Canzano of The Oregonian reports: "Said one veteran: 'You could spend a day in this locker room and you'd figure it out. Some guys really care. Others just want the season to be over.'"
- Blazers center Marcus Camby left the game after suffering a lacerated chin and a strained neck. He re-entered the game in the second half with a bandage on his chin after getting 8 stitches to fix the injury.
- Here's what Nate McMillan would say about possible changes to his starting lineup after Portland allowed 40 first quarter points: "I'll look at the tape tonight. My thing is on this game tonight."
- Here's the video clip of Blazers center Joel Przybilla stepping over Rubio to earn a technical foul. Via YouTube user nbaus3030 and @Jose3030.
- Signs: "Angry Batum... There's an app for that" (with Batum's face on the red angry bird)... "Love Stinks"... "Unleash the zoo" (with Joel Przybilla's face on a gorilla and Craig Smith's face on a rhino)... "Happy I kept my Przybilla jersey."
- I know you saw Nate McMillan giving Gerald Wallace that desperate standing ovation for laying out on the defensive play after narrowly missing a second straight steal.
- Crawford on whether a trade is necesary: "That's a tough question. I think that's what you've got to ask management. Our job as players, is if you're here you lay it on the line. If you're in the game, lay it on the line, if you're on the bench, cheer for your teammates. That's the stuff we can control."
- Sam Amick of SI.com reports that the Los Angeles Clippers might be a potential trade spot for Crawford. Something similar was floating at the Rose Garden before the game.
- Crawford on whether he would prefer not to start at point guard and return to his shooting guard spot: "Personally, I'm not into the numbers thing. If I score 2 points or 20 points we've got to win... I'm comfortable. I've got to help us win. All of us, we've got to win games. It's not about me or anybody else that's in or out. Portland has to win games as a team."
- Crawford on what needs to change defensively: "I have no idea. I honestly don't. That's putting us behind the eight ball because that puts pressure on your offense to be flawless or perfect. We can't let a team shoot over 50 percent from three."
- Martell Webster was playing out of his mind. The rebounding energy, the blocked shot/save sequence, the early threes. 21 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal. Ridiculous.
- Former University of Oregon running back LaMichael James was in attendance.
- The Blazers Ladies Club on Blazers.com has heard enough: "But this 'fan' yelled things such as "Hey Felton, go eat another donut!' I'll admit that Raymond's play this season warrants some criticism, that he hasn't lived up to expectations so far. But can we please stop with the weight jokes. We, as a fanbase, need to be better than that."
- Raymond Time™ Play Of The Night: Raymond Felton casually dribbled the ball completely out of bounds in front of the Blazers bench under minimal ball pressure. 1-for-9, 2 points, 4 assists, 1 turnover.
- All that's left to say is that when I went into the Blazers' offices to interview president Larry Miller on Wednesday these were the first two questions I was asked. 1) By the receptionist, "Would you like something to drink?" 2) By a different employee, "Can you please tell me we are trading Raymond Felton?"
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Great. We knew that he had improved. The one thing that we talked about is that we needed to stay close to him and crowd him. We lost him early in the first half. The second half, he took us down in the post. We didn't get double teams down on him quick enough. We knew that he had improved his game and extended it to the three-point line. He had several open threes, I think it was 4-4 at the half. He just dominated this game.
Minnesota's run in the fourth
Making plays. I thought we had a couple bad shots, where we started to go one-on-one in that fourth quarter, which led to some bad shots. They came down and scored, Williams came down and knocked down a couple big shots. All of a sudden, they just broke the game open.
Things like that happen. Our defense tonight, you give up 40 points in the first quarter and 38 points in the fourth quarter. Your start and your finish is weak. This team just shot the ball extremely well and we didn't defend.
Was this effort or talent?
For us, as I said to the guys, we got to get connected. Do the things that you need to do to win games. Defensively we didn't come out and commit to defending. You give up a 40-point quarter in your building and we get smacked around before we start to realize that we're in a ball game. And then we play. We show that we have this capability but we've got to get smacked upside the head... You've got to come out with that. You can't flip a switch. Tonight, you give up 40 in the first, you fight your way back. They have a big fourth quarter. They finish strong. Defensively you've got to commit and we didn't do that.
Good enough to make playoffs?
This is the roster we have. We've got to get connected and get committed to doing the things that will give us a chance to win. Team defense. Offensively, playing together. That has to be from the start. Get our heads up and play this game the right way.
Slow first quarter -- any new starting lineup?
I'll look at the tape tonight. My thing is on this game tonight.
Big road trip coming up
We talked at the beginning of the second half of the season, these games are very important before that road trip. You can't get ahead. You can't play that road trip before these games in front of us. We've dropped three. That just makes this next game even more important. Certainly after that we go on the road. We need to get a win. We have another opportunity to defend home court on Monday.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter