The Portland Trail Blazers will eye their natural advantages as they hunt down the Minnesota Timberwolves in search of a 3-1 road trip. Guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews will likely make the difference between a great game and a lousy one for the Blazers.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been doing fairly well lately against a rough schedule. Over the last couple weeks they've notched impressive wins in Denver and at home against Oklahoma City. They've also lost to the Jazz and Rockets. Stir, add ice, and you end up with a 15-14 team taking on the 17-15 Trail Blazers at 5:00 p.m. Pacific in a game televised locally on CSNNW.
It's hard to pin down the 'Wolves because they're not consistent. Different guys score big every night. They'll put up 110 and then struggle to get to 90. Tonight they're shooting 50%, tomorrow night 35%. It all depends on the opponent and the phase of the moon. We know the latter is third quarter, waning right now. As for the former, well, the Trail Blazers can be equally random night to night, as the recent New York-Toronto double header demonstrated. Who knows which teams will show up in Target Center tonight?
We do know that All-Star power forward Kevin Love is listed as day-to-day because of a sprained finger on his shooting hand suffered in Minnesota's last game, the aforementioned victory over Denver. Without Love the 'Wolves are 6-5 on the season. (What? You expected logical outcomes from them?) He was very much present when Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard put a drubbing on the 'Wolves in a 103-95 Portland victory earlier this season. Obviously him being out would allow the Blazers' counter-punch, LaMarcus Aldridge, to become just a straight punch. Portland would happily take the advantage.
Minnesota's current starting backcourt consists of the ever-steady Luke Ridnour and 6'8" Russian rookie Alexey Shved. Shved has been pressed into extra action at shooting guard because of injuries to Brandon Roy and Malcolm Lee but he's responded well, scoring in double figures for the last half dozen games. Ridnour remains the starting option in the absence of Ricky Rubio. They're backed up by Jose Juan Barea. Ridnour is the most accurate shooter of the three. The other two get hot upon occasion. The biggest commonality between them is that none of them defend well. Have you seen that gleam in the eyes of opponents as they look across their dribble and see that Damian Lillard is matched up against them? Both Lillard and Matthews should have that gleam tonight. They need to attack, attack, attack. Either or both could put up 30 and draw plenty of fouls doing it.
Forward Andre Kirilenko is the poster child for the moon-cycle aspect of this team. He'll have weeks when he looks like he's regained his All-Star form and weeks when he looks like a partially-squashed turnip could outplay him. When he's on he provides points, rebounds, and great defense. When he's not he provides pretty good defense...mostly. If this is an off night for him, Nicolas Batum's eyes should light up just like Portland's guards' will.
Then we get to the advantage that the Blazers might not be able to answer: center Nikola Pekovic. Like the rest of the non-Love 'Wolves, he's had the occasional down game. You'll see him come up with 2-4 points or 3-5 rebounds. But that happens about once a month. And he's already put in two sub-par efforts in the first two games of this month, so he's due. When he gets going he can score 20 and grab 12 boards easy. J.J. Hickson is not equipped to stop him outright. All Hickson can do is his usual fiendish rebounding job, hoping to match Pekovic's production and thus neutralize his impact instead of neutralizing his game. Pekovic and Love (if he plays) make this matchup perilous for the Blazers no matter what else happens.
As you might suspect with so many injuries and potential injuries, Minnesota's bench is a little thin right now. Barea is clearly the best player off the pines. Dante Cunningham is getting plenty of minutes (he's energetic, but more effective in smaller doses) as is stretch forward Derrick Williams. They've even dusted off a couple of other teams' fan favorites in Lou Amundson and Greg Stiemsma, to almost no effect. Portland's reserves can't be secure against anybody in this league, but as far as benches go, Minnesota's is fairly non-threatening.
(Yes, I am aware that I have just guaranteed that those reserves will go for 50 tonight.)
What do the 'Wolves like to do? Score in the paint, obviously, with Love and Pekovic on the roster. Their rebounding is incredible on both ends of the court for the same reasons. Thanks to Love they also draw plenty of foul shots. But once you get them out of the paint and off the charity stripe they're lost. They're awful from the three-point arc and not much better from mid-range if you get a hand in their face. They turn over the ball plenty trying to make plays that they can't finish anyway with nearly everybody outside of Ridnour contributing to the problem.
Defensively they rely on shot blocking, rebounding, and prayer. They're horrible in transition, they don't force turnovers, they're permissive in the paint...it's not the worst defense in the league by any means but it's not anything to crow about. Of concern to the Blazers: they do defend the three-point arc well.
The biggest question facing the Blazers tonight is the status of Love. If, as it seems, he's not going to play then Portland should simply look to overwhelm the Timberwolves at the power forward and guard spots. Make Nicolas Batum a facilitator, J.J. Hickson a rebounder, let the place-holding benches battle to a draw, and walk away with a win. If the Blazers can keep anywhere close on the glass they'll take away Minnesota's biggest advantage and make the game easier. Portland does need to make up for the potential lack of three-pointers with potential extra turnovers and running, but that should be doable.
In any case, if the Blazers play with anything near the defensive verve they showed last night in Memphis, this game will probably fall neatly into the win column. Can they do it two nights in a row, though, especially knowing that they'll need the bench to step up in order to make it work?
We shall see.
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