The Portland Trail Blazers shot and drove right over the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight in a game in which the short-handed 'Wolves bowed to Portland's strengths instead of exploiting their weaknesses.
Both strengths and weaknesses were on display in full force. On the one hand the Blazers blistered the Timberwolves at the backcourt positions. The 'Wolves invited the destruction by defending in...curious fashion? They gave help against almost any Blazer who came within 20 feet of the hoop. LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Freeland, it's all the same, right? Send an extra guy! Boom, boom, swish...two passes and the Blazers had three more points on the board. (Portland would end the evening 16-24 from distance, 67%.) Once those threes started falling the court opened up for any penetration the Blazers cared to pursue. Pass or dribble, it didn't matter. The 'Wolves were done. Nicolas Batum shot brilliantly. Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard followed suit. With 72 points from their starting guards and small forward, the Blazers hardly needed their big players or bench on offense (which was good, as everybody else struggled). At one point the Blazers were up 22 on the strength of those three guys. That's about all you need to know.
On the other hand the Blazers fell prey to Nikola Pekovic who looked like a villain in a gulag flick and affected the Blazers like he was the black plague. Every time Pekovic got the ball anywhere near the hoop Portland defenders around him started coughing and flailing. Pek had 21 points and 15 rebounds on 9-14 shooting on a night when the 'Wolves probably could have gotten him 50 shots. Alexey Shved also had a nice first half passing the ball off of screens, as the Blazers looked like Kindergarteners when handling any kind of pick.
In the end, though, the 'Wolves weren't deep or talented enough to survive their current spate of injuries and the Blazers had enough practice winning lately to be able to emerge victorious despite a huge fourth-quarter Minnesota run to close the game to 2 before Aldridge hit a calm-down shot and Batum and Matthews iced the game from the foul line.
The bigger picture here is that Portland went 3-1 on this road trip. We'll talk more about this in the coming week, but this result sets up an interesting finish to January. The Blazers play 9 of their next 12 games at home. The level of competition is high, with only 3 games falling into the category of "should win". At 18-15 the Blazers have a chance to stake an early claim for a run at a playoff spot. In order to succeed in that quest their record has to be great going into the last few weeks of the season, as the schedule there is brutal. If they're going to make a run at this, the next 12 games will tell the tale. Follow the trend of winning at home, gain a few more games over .500, and everybody has to take notice. Nothing before All-Star weekend is make or break for any team, but this is as close as it's going to get for Portland this early.
SERIOUS congratulations to the Blazers for coming out of this trip with a winning record and for letting us even think about these things.
The individual notes tonight are easy. Batum played another All-World (not just All-Star) game. Matthews and Lillard played great on offense. The caveat for Wesley was his early defense against Shved. Lillard may have taken a few too many perimeter jumpers early against those easy backcourt defenders for Minnesota but he corrected in the second half, letting his three-point success set up his drives. All three players moved the ball well, as did LaMarcus Aldridge. Other than passing and the occasional rebound, Aldridge mostly took an enabling role tonight. When the team needed him to take a shot he did, but mostly he set up the guys with big advantages and hot hands.
J.J. Hickson was the lone starter who got killed, which is not a surprise. He had 11 rebounds. That seems odd in a game that's sub-par but really Pek was having his way with Hickson. J.J. went 1-10 from the field. That's not a reflection on him, more on the size and quality of Pekovic and the admission we occasionally have to make that Hickson isn't a true center, especially on defense.
Victor Claver and Joel Freeland had fine games off the bench, Claver even showing some flair. He's gaining confidence as the season progresses, starting to deserve more notice.
Game 1 of the Big 12 comes Monday, one of those "should wins" against the Orlando Magic. Let's see how serious the Blazers are about this winning thing, not just whether they have the talent but whether they have the attitude and commitment to generate the wins they need.
Canis Hoopus will wish the 'Wolves had one more three-pointer in them during that run.