Throughout the Portland Trail Blazers' amazing 22-4 start to the season spectators have wondered what would happen if all of a sudden things quit working for the guys in red and black. Wonder no more. We got a demonstration tonight as the Minnesota Timberwolves vanquished the red-hot Blazers, 120-109. For the most part the game was not as close as the final score made it appear.
Blazers scholars will note the four-and-a-half defining characteristics of recent Portland wins:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge producing reliably.
2. Excellent three-point shooting.
3. Offensive rebounding and second-chance points.
4. Free throw attempts.
4.5. Damian Lillard heroics bailing out the team when the other three fail.
Of those, the Blazers only the ".5" operated tonight. Aldridge shot 7-22 from the field, missing jumpers he usually hits in his sleep and scoring only 15 points. Portland shot 35% from the arc, 14-40. Those 40 attempts came on 94 shots, a 43% attempt rate on a night when the shots weren't falling. Portland got 10 offensive rebounds and lost the second-chance battle to the Timberwolves. The Blazers attempted only 19 free throws tonight, hitting 15 but ceding the advantage to the 'Wolves here too. Lillard did his best to run the Blazers back into the game with 36 points but it wasn't near enough.
Blazers scholars will also note Portland's weaknesses:
1. Inability to defend the paint.
2. Susceptible to centers and guards.
3. Mediocre defensive rebounding.
4. Sketchy bench
5. Occasional propensity to lose opponents on the break.
Though their strengths failed the Blazers tonight, the weaknesses made themselves at home like in-laws at Christmas. Minnesota destroyed Portland in the first half, obliterating them in the paint and at the rim. The 'Wolves had 54 points in the paint...at the half. They'd finish the game with 72 and a +38 margin. Minnesota dominated the boards early, forced turnovers on Portland's bench, ran the break, and made hash out of Portland's centers in the halfcourt isolation. Nikola Pekovic looked like Superman instead of General Zod's lackey, scoring 30. Kevin Martin added 22. After all that the near-triple-double Kevin Love registered in the first two quarters of play was just ridiculous. Love would end up with 29 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists. The 'Wolves led by 30 in the first half, doubling up the Blazers. Spearheaded by Lillard, Portland changed up their defense at halftime and made a couple runs in the second half, closing within 5 late in the game. It wasn't near enough. Minnesota struggled with an outside attack when Portland clogged the paint but eventually got it right, if nothing else because the odds dictated it. The Timberwolves got a little nervous but weren't really threatened. The Blazers just couldn't pull out a long enough streak to overcome that kind of deficit.
Even with this loss, the Blazers just finished a 3-1 road trip. They'll take that every day and twice on Sundays. Tonight they ran into a team ready for them, committed to taking advantage of their weaknesses, and persistent enough to not let Portland get away with the miracle comeback. Watching Sportscenter the last couple of nights probably cured them of that.
The curious thing about this game is that there wasn't much new to it. You'd think a blowout (or at least early-blowout) loss would reveal radically different things than a last-second win or a double-digit victory. Not really. The same strengths and weaknesses got shuffled in the mix tonight that are in there every night, perhaps with a little more intensity, but not wholly beyond the pale. This is just what it looks like when those strengths and weaknesses lead to a loss instead of a win...a blessedly rare occurrence this season.
LaMarcus Aldridge did back up the substandard 15-point night with an excellent-standard 14 rebounds. He looked like he was pressing a little, like he wanted to save the team yet again. But too many things were collapsing around him to pull that off. By the time the defense recovered enough to support the scraps of confidence Aldridge managed to find, it was too late.
Damian Lillard also tried to strap the team on his back and managed more success than Aldridge did. 13-24 shooting, a second great three-point night in a row with 7-14, 36 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 steals. That's a whale of an effort. Still, this team isn't built to prosper with a single guy carrying the load no matter who that guy is. Heroics are meant to get you through until the cavalry comes. Those bugles never topped the hill for Lillard tonight.
Nicolas Batum didn't have a bad night, scoring 20 on 7-15 shooting with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. There just wasn't a ton for him to do. Corey Brewer is no offensive threat and Batum wasn't suited to watch Love or Martin, so his defense didn't tell. His shooters weren't hitting, the Timberwolves were mostly staying home on defense, so his passes weren't there or weren't worth much. Batum committed 5 turnovers and 4 personal fouls.
Wesley Matthews scored 16 but those came off of 4-13 shooting, 2-9 from range. He wasn't able to contain dribblers and wasn't really a factor tonight.
Robin Lopez got the double-whammy tonight. First his teammates let drivers loose in the lane so fast and so often that Lopez got dizzy just trying to track them all. Then Pekovic came in the middle and put 50 shades of scoring on him. Lopez got 25 minutes, grabbed 5 rebounds, and scored 2 points.
Portland's bench was screaming-level awful tonight in ways we probably shouldn't get into as there may be children reading. To be fair, they didn't step into a great situation, continuity being at a premium. Nobody on the bench is going to come in and transform an awful game into a good one. Mo Williams tried, but his shot was mostly off (4-11) and his utter contempt for defense (6 fouls in 18 minutes) and reason (e.g. hucking up a 25-footer with 13 seconds left on the big clock and Portland holding for the last shot) ended up making matters worse.
The Blazers return home to host New Orleans on Saturday night before getting a long Christmas break.
Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review, now showing up on Google as the #1 result for the search "Ouch!"
Canis Hoopus will be chanting, "Lamarcus Who?" There are more games left in this series, guys.