The Trail Blazers stop in Minnesota tonight to challenge the Timberwolves on the last night of a road trip in which Portland will have played four games in five nights.
Minnesota features a pretty high-octane offense behind the stellar play of forward Kevin Love, who attempts about eight three-pointers a night.
Lately, Love has been playing out of his mind. Of the aforementioned eight three-point shots per game he's been taking, Love sinks almost 48 percent. He gets to the line over seven times a game and makes 86.5 percent of his free-throws, pulls down almost 14 boards and scores about 30 points. Love's efficiency has been through the roof recently, setting up a great matchup with Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Portland has seen Aldridge hit over half his shot attempts and score 25.6 points a game to go with 15 rebounds a night in his last five outings. The Love-Aldridge matchup is intriguing because it pits two outside-in power forwards against each other, effectively limiting the time spent in the key when on the defensive end of the floor and probably impacting their work on the glass. Both Love and Aldridge have been grabbing around 10 defensive rebounds a night, but what happens when they get drug out of the middle to guard each other? Blazers coach Terry Stotts probably won't gamble with letting Aldridge sag too much, because Love has been unreal with his outside shooting as of late.
Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic has been their next most consistent scorer behind Love, and he certainly enjoys playing inside as a complement to the former Three-Point Shootout champion. Pekovic takes almost all of his shots at the rim, making about half and dumping in 17.6 points a night.
Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio has also been chipping away from behind the arc the last several games, making over 46 percent of his three-point attempts. He also can take his man off the dribble and pull up in the mid-range or take it to the rack, but Rubio's not finishing as well from within the three-point line. He draws contact, is an excellent free-throw shooter, a willing passer and he only takes 11 shots a game.
Guard Kevin Martin was supposed to plug right in starting on the wing, but he's been inefficient both on his outside shots and two-pointers. Martin has been slowed by a knee-injury, sitting out against the Celtics Monday night. Forward Corey Brewer and guard J.J. Barea also get some shots up, but they're also not shooting well from close. Brewer has been horrible from outside, but Barea's shot a solid 40 percent clip in recent weeks.
The Timberwolves, as a whole, attempt a lot of deep shots and lately, they've had some good individual marksmen. Love and Rubio are hitting almost half their three-pointers, reserve forward Robbie Hummel is at 42.9 percent and Barea and backup guard Alexey Shved are both at 40 percent. Like the Blazers, Minnesota has several legitimate threats from downtown.
The Wolves like to score, get out on the break, attack the middle and pass the ball well. They also draw a lot of fouls and they're accurate at shooting free-throws. When Minnesota's offense is clicking, they're capable of putting a ton of points on the board.
Defensively, things get shaky for the Wolves. They don't stop the fast break or scores inside and the ball can be moved effectively against them. The one thing Minnesota does really well defensively is limit their own fouls, as they commit fewer than any team in the league. Still, they allow a high percentage on most shots and they're not good at defending the arc. The Wolves do, however, manage a lot of takeaways due to steals by Rubio, Martin, Brewer and reserve forward Dante Cunningham.
Portland should match up pretty well against the Wolves. The Blazers hit the outside shot well and Minnesota can't seem to defend it. Likewise, the Wolves attempt a ton of threes but Portland defends the arc very well. The only huge worry is Love drawing out defenders and clearing space in the middle. Every team scores points in the paint against the Blazers, so Minnesota's inside game can probably be lived with if they can be limited on three-pointers.
Both teams are great at rebounding, but as mentioned before, what happens when the leading rebounders for each team -- Love and Aldridge -- are pulled away from the basket on defense? Their teams are both likely to suffer grabbing boards, and the Pekovic-Robin Lopez matchup looks interesting, as well. Both are good rebounders in their own rights, but they've also been benefitting from the work done on the glass recently by All-Star power forward teammates. Both teams see decent rebounding numbers from all positions, too, so it's difficult to say which team can counter the other's rebounding attack most efficiently.
The Blazers are probably going to struggle defending the Wolves at times, because Minnesota has the inside threat of Pekovic, the dynamic play of Rubio, Love's outside-in game and they have outside shooters peppered throughout the roster.
If Aldridge can neutralize Love, Portland probably has a shot of finishing off the road trip undefeated if the supporting cast shows up. Timely threes by wings Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright would be helpful. Guard Mo Williams coming in off the bench and breaking down the defense could be key and solid contributions on the glass and on defense by Blazers reserve bigs Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland could play a large factor.
Even so, Portland is on the second half of a back-to-back, they've played four out of five nights on the road, and they barely squeaked by Detroit and Cleveland this week, needing overtime against the Pistons Sunday afternoon and getting by with last second heroics from Lillard. This Blazers squad is going to be tired, and the magic will run out eventually. The Wolves are 7-4 at home and had last night off while Portland was battling Cleveland to the wire.
Minnesota and their fans will be up for the NBA-leading Blazers, and they're going to be fatigued and looking forward to returning to the Moda Center. Still, Portland hasn't shown recently a lack of fight, regardless of energy levels or opponents' hot streaks. If the Blazers come out flat, the Wolves will probably pounce early and try to bury the road-weary travelers. If Portland comes out business-as-usual -- they've been doing that almost a third of the season, probably enough to give them the benefit of the doubt -- this game will likely be decided by who defends the three-point line better and who wins the All-Star power forward battle between Aldridge and Love.