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Game 6 Preview: Timberwolves vs. Blazers

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OK, let’s see…pant, pant.  L*kers, Spurs, Suns…pant, pant…Jazz, and Rockets.  Anything else to throw at us, NBA?  Let me guess, LeBron James has been traded to the Celtics for one night only and they’re coming to Portland.  No, no, no…wait.  You’ve assembled a team of robotic Michael Jordans and are sending them up against the Blazers, right?  You evil so-and-so’s!  I oughtta…what?  The Timberwolves?  You mean space-age, futuristic Timberwolves with laser eyes and anti-matter torpedoes shooting out of their butts, right?  No?  Just the plain, old Timberwolves, huh?  Wait.  This is some kind of trick, isn’t it?

 

OK…assuming that it’s actually the real Timberwolves coming to town and not some kind of 7-foot tall undead vampire army with a preference for Spanish flesh, this will be the first game of the season that the Blazers could be reasonably expected to win going in.  That’s not to say the ‘Wolves are bereft of talent.  Much like the Blazers they’re stocked with good, emerging players.  But they aren’t a cohesive unit yet.  Neither are the Blazers but Portland has the advantage of a little more time together and a few more wins under their collective belts.

 

A Look at the Timberwolves

 

Right now there’s one main star for Minnesota, Al Jefferson.  He’s a perpetual double-double machine, averaging 22 and 12 so far this year.  In most ways he’s transitioned well from power forward to center, though he starts his offense farther outside than traditional middle men.  The combination of not having the same access to the interior against bigger guys and defenses circling his name in red is making it harder for him to get his numbers, but he’s still managing.  It’ll be interesting to see if this alignment continues throughout the season, let alone the next few years.

 

Riding shotgun to Jefferson is veteran Mike Miller.  He’s always been a percentage shooter and deep threat and it’s no different in the Great White North.  He dropped 25 on the Spurs the other night, shooting 5-7 from distance.  That kind of production is unusual for him, but he’ll have ample chance to repeat it, as his veteran status among youth is earning him major minutes.

 

The third Minnesota stalwart (for now, anyway) is point guard Randy Foye.  I say “for now” because although his assists and rebounds have been high at 6 and 4 per game respectively, he’s having trouble generating his own offense and the ‘Wolves are suffering for it.  He’s shooting 28% from the field on the year, and this from a player known heretofore for his scoring potential.  None of the players below him on the depth chart are that reliable.  Minnesota needs him to complete their offensive tripod and to make the less accomplished scorers better.  He’s struggling in both areas right now.  Former Blazer Sebastian Telfair, back from a gun-related suspension, had 10 assists in 30 minutes against the Spurs Wednesday and 15 points and 7 assists in 29 minutes against the Kings Friday.  Foye saw only 26 minutes in that game.  It’ll be interesting to watch the point guard play tonight.

 

The other major Minnesota players are almost all forwards.  Kevin Love is the shiny, new draft pick who’s only shooting 43% so far.  Ryan Gomes is a solid forward and one of Minnesota’s only decent shooters but is starting to lose time to Love.  Craig Smith is a journeyman who is now buried in the power forward shuffle.  Small forward Corey Brewer is turning into a decent defender and rebounder but still struggles to shoot and score.  Athletic shooting guard Rashad McCants, burdened by past injuries and the lack of a perimeter game, has never lived up to his draft hype.  The ‘Wolves are thin in the backcourt and overstocked in the frontcourt.  Like an unbalanced plan they’re struggling to stay aloft.  At 1-4 with losses to the Thunder and Kings that ground is getting mighty close.

 

As a team the ‘Wolves have a couple of major problems.  First they have no perimeter game to speak of.  If you keep a hand in Miller’s face you have corralled their outside attack.  Second, their defense is choppier than their offense.  Third, despite having a couple good rebounders they are weak overall as a team.  That’s a potent combination of flaws to overcome.

 

Keys to the Game

 

1.  If you either slow down Al Jefferson’s scoring or match him point for point you should be able to beat the ‘Wolves.

 

2.  This is one game where Portland should dominate on the boards.  If they rebound like they did against the Rockets on Thursday they will squash Minnesota flat.

 

3.  Deny the middle and make the Timberwolves score from the perimeter sidelines.

 

4.  Offensively the Blazers need to go hard into the heart of the Minnesota defense.  Post-up play is one way to do that but it allows the defense to get set.  Even better:  get past your initial defender and take the ball down deep.  You’re guaranteed to have an easy scoring attempt or a pass to someone else for an easy scoring attempt.

 

5.  Speaking of passes:  two decent ones in any possession and you’ll have whatever shot you like.

 

Storylines to Watch

 

1.  How’s Portland’s Energy?

 

The Blazers have just played five games against major teams.  They’re coming off a fantastic, emotional win against the Rockets.  This is the first team on the schedule they should beat.  Reality check:  the Blazers are neither good nor experienced enough to take anyone for granted yet.  It’ll be much harder to win this game after coming out flat and giving the Timberwolves life than it will be if the Blazers continue Thursday’s onslaught.

 

2.  Is There a Point Guard in the House?

 

Steve Blake’s game has been a little wonky.  Sergio is going through a soap opera.  Jerryd Bayless hasn’t seen the light of day yet.  Randy Foye is struggling big time and Sebastian Telfair is always good for a crazy old time.  It’s like a circus.  There’s plenty of potential for one of these guys to take advantage of all the others.  I just hope it isn’t Telfair.

 

3.  Jefferson vs. Aldridge

 

It probably won’t be a direct matchup, but Lamarcus will do a ton of psychological damage if he’s able to keep pace with Al Jefferson tonight.  He’s Minnesota’s trump card.  It will be nice if Portland can say, “We’ve got one of those.  Oh…and this.  And this.  And this…”

 

4.  Love Comes Home

 

How will Kevin Love look in his first game back?

 

Final Thoughts

 

It’s early yet, but these are the games you need to win if you want to make your spring run seem easier.  And I don't care what the records say, I'm bringing my garlic, crucifix, and anti-robot spray just in case.

 

Check out the Minnesota view at  CanisHoopus.com.

 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)