The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 119-106, at the Rose Garden on Sunday night, improving their record to 25-28 on the season.
If there's one thing we can do in Portland it's identify a basketball team that has had its soul removed by injuries. The Minnesota Timberwolves are such a team.
The heart is still functional -- really, it's pumping overtime -- thanks to All-Star forward Kevin Love, who was clearly wearing the weight of a depleted roster on his shoulders. But the soul -- the joy for hooping, the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum mentality, the thrill of confidence that goes with breaking new ground, the adrenaline rush from the highlight plays -- disappeared with Ricky Rubio's season-ending knee injury. The subsequent rash of injuries (center Nikola Pekovic, forward Michael Beasley and guard J.J. Barea all missed time) has replaced "positive momentum" with the dreaded "bad luck."
Sunday night's loss moved the Timberwolves back down to the Northwest Division's basement, a familiar home over the years but one they've avoided in recent weeks and months. It put Minnesota 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed with 15 to play, drastically decreasing their chances of making the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2004. It left the Timberwolves tired, frustrated and feeling a little bit helpless. It left Minnesota ripped apart to the tune of 119 points, the most Portland has scored in a game this season, save the 137 points the Blazers hung on the San Antonio Spurs' third string before the All-Star break.
"We just had a very poor game defensively," lamented Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman. "We never stopped them the whole night... They got 30 points in three different quarters. That's all on us. We've talked about it all year long, and when things start to go tough, you cave in there."
"It's very tough," Love said. "Losing Ricky was obviously the toughest thing for us. We were able to grind out games, get wins. Pek went down, J.J. continued to be hurt, he never got right with him hamstring and now his quad. With Michael out, he's added firepower. All four of those guys add something special to this team, when we were rolling we had everybody together. It's definitely tough at this point but we have to look to get better. We needed a better defensive effort."
The Blazers didn't score at will but the points came more than easily enough. Raymond Felton and Wesley Matthews took full advantage of the depleted Minnesota backcourt and Portland attacked the undersized Timberwolves front line to the tune of 50 points in the paint. Felton nearly put up a triple double (10 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and 2 turnovers), Matthews added 18 points, Nicolas Batum had 24 points and 5 rebounds and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge scored a team-high 26 points and added 8 rebounds.
As with kicking Minnesota down to the basement, there was a bit of a "restoring order" subtext between Aldridge and Love. On more than one occasion, Aldridge looked as if he had heard enough about Love's supposed MVP candidacy and thought plenty about his perceived minutes snub during the All-Star Game. Aldridge forcefully swatted a Love attempt deep into the stands and he made a point to give Love a little shove after the two got tangled up in the first half.
"They got into a little fight," Batum said of the two All-Star forwards. "I think that motivated him a little more. He did a great job tonight. He was very aggressive, it's been since the All-Star break since we've seen L.A. this aggressive."
"Just two guys going hard tonight," Aldridge said of the face-to-face staredown. "Just two guys competing. A little chippy out there."
"LaMarcus and I get along well," Love said. "We always have. He played well tonight. That's just probably something to get his team going. Get the fans into it. Those sorts of things happen. They were just the aggressors tonight. They came at us from the start. They had runs and we couldn't respond."
Love responded well -- finishing with 26 points and 9 rebounds -- but he was just one man. Other than an impressive and athletic showing from rookie forward Derrick Williams, who put up 21 points and 6 rebounds while toying with Luke Babbitt, the Timberwolves simply didn't have the firepower to keep pace with six Blazers in double figures.
"We have four guys missing," Adelman said. "Four of our top six scorers are missing. That puts a little pressure on [Love]. We're not the same team."
Minnesota's thrown together rotation and lackluster defensive effort gave this a little bit of an exhibition game feel. Jamal Crawford hit a mooshot and broke out his carefree crossovers, Aldridge got his numbers without too much effort and Batum... well, Batum was both wacky and infuriating.
First, he managed to block his own dunk with his head and get whistled for goaltending in the process. Yes, you read that correctly. Batum dunked the ball, it ricocheted off his head as it went through the cylinder but before it cleared the bottom of the net, thus drawing an offensive goaltending call from the officials.
"You know what they say. If you watch this game long enough you'll see something new every night," Blazers interim coach Kaleb Canales said. "That was the first time I saw that."
"I did that a couple times, in Europe, when the ball goes through the rim that counts," Batum said. "[Here] now it has to go through the net, so I was like, 'That's the rule. I can't go against the rule.' I didn't know that. The ref talked to me about that. He said it happens once every five years."
Batum broke out his patented smirk after catching some grief from reporters over the play
"I jump too high," he cracked.
But his night didn't end on that quirky note. Instead, it concluded with the basketball chucked at his rump, courtesy of Timberwolves guard Wayne Ellington who took exception to a Batum basket in the game's final seconds. Rather than allow the shot clock to expire with roughly a second remaining, Batum flipped up a lay-up as the game ended, tacking on an extra two points to what was already a double-digit win. NBA protocol generally dictates that the winning team should take the turnover in that situation.
"When you're up like that you're supposed to hold the ball," Ellington said. "That's an unwritten rule. I got frustrated with that. He knows. He knows. It's no big deal, though."
"That's my responsibility," Canales said, visibly upset at what happened but trying admirably to fall on the sword. "We had a miscommunication down the stretch. I need to do a better job with that. That's not who we are and we addressed it as a team."
Batum relayed that Canales' address wasn't particularly complicated: "Don't do it, don't do it again."
"I did it one time my rookie year," he continued. "I didn't know. In Europe, even if you are [up] plus 20, we are going to play it to the last play. I remember Kevin Pritchard, the GM said, 'Don't do it again.' I know not to do it. I didn't do it on purpose. I'm not like this. Now it's over."
He slyly hinted that perhaps karma intervened after his earlier dunk was disallowed.
"Maybe circumstances, they owe me two points," he quipped.
After the game, though, Batum took the unusual step of saying he was sorry for his transgression on Twitter.
"My bad for the last play," Batum wrote. "I want to apologize to the Timberwolves for the last lay up."
The apology says a lot about Batum the person and it also reflects some of the shared suffering between these two franchises. The dashed expectations, injuries and the shame of likely Lottery appearances have accumulated. Losing is bad enough without an added insult.
There was no need to take -- and no malicious intention of giving -- an extra slap in the face. Both sides have seen enough.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout.
- Before the game, Blazers founder Harry Glickman and president Larry Miller honored longtime Blazers broadcaster Steve "Snapper" Jones with a customized No. 26 jersey to recognize his 26 years broadcasting the team's games.
- The National Anthem singer -- 13-year-old Hailey/Haley (spelling?) -- was sensational. Legit goosebumps. Get her in the regular Anthem rotation. I look forward to seeing her on "American Idol" in a few years.
- J.J. Hickson got his first start with the Blazers -- scoring 15 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in 35 minutes -- because Joel Przybilla was down with a minor knee injury suffered during Friday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Asked if he thought he would continue to start during the rest of the season, Hickson said, "We'll see. We'll definitely see."
- Hickson doesn't lack for confidence: "I think the pick-and-roll with me and L.A. in the game is unstoppable because the other big [knows] he's not going to leave LaMarcus. Me and him in the game, I'm just playing off of him and I'm having fun doing it."
- A scuffle in the stands resulted in a man being hogtied with plastic handcuffs and carried from the bowl by security after he resisted efforts to resolve the situation more peacefully, according to multiple eyewitnesses. Cellphone video sent to Blazersedge showed the man being lifted off the ground and carried horizontally into a service elevator by six security members with multiple staffers and at least one uniformed police officer flanking him.
- Did you see what prompted the altercation? Do you have video? Send it to the email below.
- Even better: Are you the man who was detained and carried off? Let me hear your side of the story. Don't call a lawyer. They will want you to spend money! Trust me. Email me first. I promise a sympathetic ear free of charge.
- Top 5 most likely causes of the disturbance, based on scientific research: 1) Alcohol 2) Alcohol 3) Losing out on a free t-shirt 4) Alcohol 5) Temporary insanity caused by overexposure to Blaze The Trail Cat
- Speaking of Blaze, it was his "birthday" -- an annual event where mascots from around the league come together at the Rose Garden for a massive orgy of stupid tricks and fake laughs. No one really enjoyed the performance except for Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, who posted like 43 tweets about the various hijinks. He then drove home to Seattle and made his family of 38 cats reenact the mascot dunk contest and wrestling ring competition.
- I was really rooting for Felton to get closer to the triple-double mark just to see how he would handle himself, considering the Chalupa-gate meltdown at the free throw line earlier in the week. Just two rebounds shy of potential Ricky Davis-esque fireworks.
- Reminder: The 2012 Nike Hoop Summit is Saturday. Practices begin tomorrow for the World team. Will be posting sporadic coverage throughout the week for SBNation.
Aldridge on the key to limiting Kevin Love to 26 points and 9 rebounds after he averaged 35.5 points and 13 rebounds in the two previous meetings with the Blazers and a ridiculous 30.7 points and 13.9 rebounds during the month of March: "Just crowding him. The first [two] times we played him we gave him a lot of transition threes, face-up shots. Tonight we were making him dribble the ball and take tough shots."
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
I felt, and as a coaching staff we felt, that we played 48 minutes of Blazers basketball on both ends tonight.
Six guys in double figures. Luke had 8. Sharing the basketball. 22 assists. Just fun basketball to watch tonight.
Nicolas Batum's last-second basket
That's my responsibility. We had a miscommunication down the stretch. I need to do a better job with that. That's not who we are and we addressed it as a team.
You didn't want him to shoot it?
We addressed it as a team.
What does that mean?
I mean, it's not who we are. Like I said, it's a team issue that we addressed as a team. That's my responsibility. I have to do a better job of communicating that on the floor.
He played like an All-Star. He's our All-Star, he's our go-to player. Nothing he does on the floor surprises me or surprises us as a coaching staff. He's getting better every day.
Key to slowing down Kevin Love in the second half
We know Kevin Love is a good basketball player. They're a good team over there. Coach Adelman and his staff have done a tremendous job this year. We just try to give these top players different looks as much as we can and we're just fortunate we got the victory tonight.
J.J. was terrific again. We felt that he's a good complementary player with LaMarcus. We like finishing the game with him down the stretch. Not only J.J. we thought all the combinations of guys out there tonight, we played with flow and pace and tempo which is what we want to do offensively.
Nicolas Batum blocks his own dunk with his head
You know what they say if you watch this game long enough you'll see something every night. That was the first time I saw that.
Nic understands and Wes understands that they're going to have tough match-ups every night at that wing position. Any time he can make shots and his defense creates his offense, tonight was an example of that.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter