Update (Friday night): Kevin Love left Minnesota's game against the Golden State Warriors on two separate occasions after suffering a left ankle injury and a right knee injury. Love re-entered the game in the fourth quarter but appeared to be favoring the knee down the stretch. Updates when they become available. -- Ben
The Blazers face their third-straight Northwest Division opponent tonight when starting All-Star forward Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves come to Portland on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Wolves' frontcourt duo of Love and center Nikola Pekovic is among the most offensively potent in the NBA. Lately -- over the course of his last five games -- Love's shooting percentage has dipped into the low 40s, though. Still, he's a threat to score from almost anywhere on the floor. Love has been connecting on about 38 percent of his threes, the left-elbow three-pointer being his favorite place to launch from and also his most accurate outside shot. The last time the two teams met in a mid-December rout for the Timberwolves, Love nailed four of his seven three-pointers and chipped in 29 points. He's also adept at getting to the line, drawing 7 fouls a game recently. Fortunately for the Blazers, Love has been struggling from the line for a stretch, only hitting 68.2 percent of his free-throw tries.
Pekovic is a massive force down low, not even attempting a shot from much further than 10 feet out this entire season. He also has underrated touch around the rim, knocking down 57.1 percent of his field-goal attempts the last couple weeks. Pekovic's wide frame also allows him to set effective picks for his teammates, so Portland defenders will need to be aware of when he's setting a screen because he is difficult to go around and almost impossible to go through.
Don't expect a whole lot of production out of Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio on the offensive end aside from some impressive passing. He plays fewer than 30 minutes a night, barely shoots and hits only 38.7 percent of his attempts. Somehow he's managed to convert on half his three-pointers as of late, but he'll likely only take a couple outside shots.
Guard Kevin Martin has struggled to find his shot since starting the season reasonably well, going 37.5 percent from the field and only 25 percent from downtown his last several games. Martin's inefficiency has hurt the Wolves' production recently. The soon-to-be 31-year-old was signed to a four-year deal by Minnesota this past offseason to be an offensive spark, but his cold shooting has put a pretty big dent in his scoring output and Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman has lately lowered his court time to about 26 minutes a game, 6 minutes less than his season average.
Adelman plays 11 guys regularly, with guards J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved and frontcourt players Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Ronny Turiaf, Dante Cunningham and Luc Mbah a Moute all picking up at least 10 minutes per contest right now. Shved and Budinger are both legitimate threats to score from outside but Barea and Brewer are really struggling from beyond the arc their last five games, hitting 22.2 and 16.7 percent of their threes. Both are better inside the three-point line, but Barea is practically mirroring Martin's slumping stats recently with an overall field-goal percent of 37.1.
Perhaps the Timberwolves' greatest strength this season is their rebounding, as they are top-three in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. Love and Pekovic are both great individual rebounders, allowing Turiaf, Cunningham and even Rubio to contribute on the glass. Although Minnesota's dominating the boards this season, Portland is actually outperforming them in the rebounding department when both teams' last 10 games are compared. Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge is grabbing almost a quarter of all available rebounds, while center Robin Lopez and backup big men Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland clean up Aldridge's scraps effectively. The Wolves won the rebounding battle with the Blazers back in December, 53-45, so expect a better performance from Portland this time around as they've turned the corner on the boards since.
Portland point guard Damian Lillard has cooled off considerably in recent weeks, hitting only 41 percent of his field-goals and 21.4 percent of his threes after starting the season on fire. He still supplements his scoring with over five free-throws a night and sets up his teammates well, averaging 6 assists a game, but Lillard has taken a bit of a backseat lately to Aldridge as the power forward has been pouring in over 31 points a night his last five games, along with almost 15 rebounds and 9 free-throw attempts. Aldridge takes 24 shots a game to get his points, but he's shooting pretty efficiently from the field, making about half his shots and he's hitting almost 82 percent of his free-throws during his recent stretch of dominant play that has seen him score fewer than 21 points just once and grab less than 12 boards only twice since the start of the new year.
Guard Wesley Matthews has also been on a nice offensive streak, hitting half his shots and 43.2 percent of his three-pointers as the Blazers second-leading scorer lately. Forward Nicolas Batum has regained some of his form, playing through injury to hit almost 36 percent of his shots from downtown the last few weeks.
Lopez continues to be a consistent scorer within the key, but guard Mo Williams is not flourishing at the moment, making less than 30 percent of his threes and only 40.9 percent of his overall shots recently. He's also not passing as well as he was earlier in the season, though his turnovers are less frequent.
Believe it or not, backup rookie guard C.J. McCollum has come off the bench the last several games to be the Blazers' most consistent three-point shooter, hitting 45.5 percent of his threes. Off the dribble, McCollum's also shown some nice moves and a solid pull-up jumper.
Neither the Wolves nor the Blazers are lighting the league on fire right now with their defense, both teams allowing about 46 percent from the field by opponents the last 10 games. For the month of January, both Minnesota and Portland are in the top-three teams in the league for points scored in the paint, but they also get hammered inside by the opposition. Expect a lot of offense near the hoop tonight. The Wolves also allow shots from the perimeter at a decent clip, but the Blazers have struggled to limit opponents' production from outside lately, too.
Minnesota forces more turnovers, as Rubio collects 2.6 steals a night alone. While the Blazers aren't really prone to turning the ball over, they also don't gamble enough defensively to force a ton of mistakes. Watch the Wolves' aggressive defense, because teams have been averaging 16 turnovers a game against them.
Matthews predicted a statement game for Aldridge tonight as he matches up with Love, one of the Western Conference frontcourt players who beat him out for a starting spot in the All-Star game. The last time the two teams met, Love won the head-to-head match-up with Aldridge, outscoring him 29-15 while Pekovic poured in 30 points of his own. This time around, the Blazers are the team playing after a day off while the Wolves played last night against the Warriors.
Like Portland's game against the Nuggets a few nights ago, you can probably expect this game to be much more of an offensive affair than a defensive battle, as both teams' offenses are humming along right now while their defenses lag a bit behind. If the Blazers can keep the perimeter sealed tonight and not put Minnesota at the line too often -- the Wolves are scoring as much from free-throws as Portland is right now -- they'll have a chance to even the season series with this Northwest Division rival.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter