The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves clawed and scratched each other throughout a physical, emotional contest tonight. From the opening tip it was obvious that no quarter would be given, no dirty trick left unplayed in quest of a victory. The Blazers prevailed in that quest, dumping the Timberwolves in the fourth period and never looking back, but the 115-104 win wasn't the last chapter in the story. Fans of both teams might want to circle their February 8th matchup on the calendar. Despite disparity in the overall standings this is quickly becoming a rivalry.
Part of the intrigue between these two teams comes from nasty individual matchups. LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Kevin Love for Best Power Forward in the Game heads the list. But you also have Wesley Matthews versus Kevin Martin as scoring shooting guards, the defense-and-passing point guard versus the scorer as Ricky Rubio lines up against Damian Lillard, plus a cranked-up-to-11 war between Robin Lopez and Nikola Pekovic. Every...single...one of those individual battles brought intense skirmishes tonight. Oddly enough, they balanced out to the point that non-standard benefits ended up winning the game for the Blazers.
The game opened up with the Timberwolves playing inside-out offense against Portland's substandard "D". The 'Wolves went inside to Pekovic or drove past Lillard into the paint. When Portland sagged to help Kevin Martin made them pay with the triple. Aside from that, the Timberwolves also brutalized the Blazers with screens. Portland solved them late, went the wrong direction, or fell into uncharacteristic and mostly-ill-advised switches. Minnesota scored 29 points in the opening frame, narrowly missing joining the "We Pasted 30 in a Period on the Blazers" club. (They have cards and a stamp now. Do it 9 times and your 10th 30-point quarter is free.)
Meanwhile the Blazers plowed onward, taking advantage of a pair of surprises. Nicolas Batum put aside his "I'm not scoring because my finger hurts and I'm a passer anyway" ways, butchering the 'Wolves on a series of drives and fast-break finishes en route to 11 points in the period. Minnesota paid attention to everyone else, Nic's teammates found him, and he made them pay.
Offensive rebounding is hardly a surprise for the Blazers. They trade on it every game. But Minnesota is a good rebounding team with big bodies to throw at the glass. The Blazers made them look like a 6'5" and Under club in the first half. Robin Lopez started the fun and just about every teammate followed in his wake. The big men in black and blue stood flat-footed as the Blazers all but stuck their tongues out on neener-neener second-chance finishes. Throw in a few fast break points against Minnesota's slow transition defense and the Blazers managed 27 points against the 29 the 'Wolves posted.
This is usually the point where we bemoan how badly Portland's bench got beaten in the transition between periods but prepare yourself for the third big surprise of the evening. Not only did the Blazer reserves not give up the lead, they pushed Portland ahead...way ahead. Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland, and C.J. McCollum out-passed, out-classed, and kicked uhhh....behind against their Minnesota counterparts. Williams found open spaces and either hit shots or made pristine passes. Robinson blitzed the boards and actually kept decent spacing. McCollum played mini-Mo with his confident offense and Freeland rebounded and held himself to only 3 personal fouls on the evening instead of the foul-crazy rate he's been posting lately. Portland's reserves pushed a 2 point lead to 12 and still managed to hand back a 6-point spread for the starters to close with. After that it was an easy cruise to the half with the Blazers leading 65-57. Had Martin not been on fire from the arc for most of the half the lead would have been 15. Things were looking good.
Then everything fell apart at the top of the third period. The Timberwolves, content to lob jumpers for the opening 24 minutes, suddenly remembered that they had penetration and post powers. They brought out their big guns: Love, Rubio, and especially Pekovic. Pek scored 8 points in the first 5 minutes of the third with 3 dunks, all assisted by Rubio. Portland's defense reacted slowly, if at all. The 'Wolves wrested control of the boards from Portland and got to 50-50 balls first. The Blazers stopped moving the ball and players on offense, settling for slower isolation moves from their stars. That's not Blazer Ball and it showed. In a shake and a shiver Minnesota erased the deficit and took a narrow lead. The margin remained 1-2 points until Portland's bench players returned at the end of the period and Mo Williams hit a couple more buckets, pushing the lead back to 87-81 for the Blazers at the third quarter horn.
Williams, McCollum, and Robinson continued their sparkling play through the early minutes of the fourth. The Timberwolves found little scoring off their bench. When Minnesota's starters returned they looked drained, content to bomb away from range. There's an old adage in basketball that you never take the shot you fake, especially if it's a jumper. The 'Wolves seemed to want to win the game by triple-faking from 20 feet and then launching. It didn't work. The Blazers rebounded, whipped the ball downcourt, and caught Minnesota's defense napping. Portland's lead stretched and the Timberwolves couldn't answer, leading to the 115-104 final score.
Batum, Bench, and Boards gave the Blazers the edge tonight. It may not have been their "A" game but Triple-B was good enough. The Blazers managed 13 offensive rebounds to 8 for Minnesota and won the points in the paint battle yet again, 60-46. (Though to be fair the Timberwolves probed the paint seriously for maybe one quarter of this contest...a mistake they'll no doubt address before the 8th.) Minnesota hit 9 three-pointers while the Blazers shot only 4-16 for 25%. But the Blazers made up for it with a higher percentage from the floor (48%-43%) and more shots attempted (95-89). This is their new M.O. and so far it's serving them well. We're just about to the point where we can say those offensive rebounds are more important to Portland's attack than the triples. We'll see what happens when the league adjusts again.
Also of note tonight: Portland committed only 12 turnovers for 11 points against compared to 10 and 10 for Minnesota. This is a Timberwolves specialty on defense. Keeping even was a victory for the Blazers.
Who was the best power forward in the league tonight, LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love? Love scored 15 on 4-12 shooting and the Blazers did a good job denying him scoring position and offensive rebounds. He had 13 boards overall. Aldridge scored 21 on 9-21 shooting with 6 rebounds. Neither guy had their most efficient night, let alone most prolific. For the most part they canceled each other out.
Damian Lillard scored 14 on 5-17 shooting, hit 1 of 4 triples, and attempted only 3 foul shots (1 a technical). He had 5 assists and 3 turnovers. He struggled to find daylight tonight and never really managed to break free. Ricky Rubio shot 4-8 for 10 points plus 11 assists. He had 4 personal fouls and his lack of outside shooting allowed the Blazers to pack the paint.
Wesley Matthews and Kevin Martin both had good nights. Matthews scored 18 on 6-10 shooting, though he missed 4 of 5 from distance. In a good news-bad news situation he drew 8 foul shot attempts but hit only 5 of them. He contributed 6 rebounds. Martin, meanwhile, hit half of his 22 shots, fired 6-10 from beyond the arc, and scored 30.
In similar fashion Robin Lopez and Nikola Pekovic had fine outings. Lopez had 10 rebounds, 3 offensive, and scored 15 on 6-10 shooting. Pekovic went 9-18 for 23 points and 11 rebounds. Lopez put plenty of extra mustard on a late-game swat of a Pekovic half-hook, sending a message. Ironically the streaking ball almost landed in the lap of Burt Ward, the original Robin from the 60's Batman TV series, in town for ComicCon.
Adam West wasn't in attendance, but the Blazers' Batman got his team off to a fine start in that first quarter and finished the game with 13 points on 5-10 shooting with 8 rebounds and 5 assists. The rest of Batum's night didn't measure up to the first 12 minutes but he did enough.
Mo Williams made a bid for the role of Superman off the bench, hitting 6-12 and damaging the 'Wolves with 16 points on a night when their entire bench managed only 15. Add in 6 assists and 5 rebounds and you have maybe the nicest game Williams has put in this season. Seriously, all you had to do in order to appreciate Williams tonight was to contrast him with Minnesota's J.J. Barea. Reportedly Barea was upset with playing time a couple weeks ago. He got 11 minutes tonight and filled them with multiple wheelbarrows full of limpid suck, pure and uncut. Be glad that guy's not riding Portland's bench.
Thomas Robinson also had one of his better games. 6 rebounds and 6 points in 14 minutes isn't that unusual for him. Committing 0 turnovers and only 2 personal fouls plus staying the heck out of the way when everybody else was trying to work made those stats productive. Nicely done.
C.J. McCollum may not qualify for never having met a shot he didn't like, but he sure glad-hands plenty of them and might be able to win public office if shots could vote. He looked confident tonight from every range, splashing home 3-6 for 6 points in 16 minutes. Even better, he added 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block.
Joel Freeland didn't look dominant but at least he didn't hurt his team, Minnesota's smaller non-Pek bigs probably feeding into that. 6 rebounds in 14 minutes helped to keep the bench roll going.
The Blazers face a tough contest tomorrow night facing the Warriors. Stay tuned for Ben Golliver's Media Row Report from the Moda Center and Chris Lucia's preview of the West Coast War that will ensue in Oakland.
Canis Hoopus might be grumpy about this game.
Tonight's Contest Answers:
The Blazers win 2 quarters.
The Blazers commit 12 turnovers.
Kevin Love gets more combined points and rebounds than LaMarcus Aldridge (by 1).
The Timberwolves score under 106.5 points.
Oldschool predicted this game the best, earning 93 out of a possible 100 points.
MavetheGreat still leads the monthly contest with 502 points and a 62.8 average but a couple players are right on his heels.