The Portland Trail Blazers were taken out of their comfort zone by the Minnesota Timberwolves, leading to an ugly loss and the snapping of their 5-game winning streak, with a little help from 2014 #1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Even with the loss, the 17-5 Blazers still sport one of the best records in the NBA. There can be many narratives written about this game, but in the end, the causes are simple: The Blazers struggle against physicality, cannot always come back after lackadaisical early play, and will always have trouble winning when three-pointers stop falling.
The game opened with Portland taking a small lead, but there were quickly reasons to be concerned. The Timberwolves played inspired ball, showing an unexpectedly physical style of play. They crashed the boards and punished every Blazers shooter, daring the refs to call fouls on nearly every possession. This has been a recipe for Blazer struggles before, and it was no different here: Soon, no shots were falling, including multiple airballs against rough defense. The Wolves zeroed in on Aldridge and were successful. LaMarcus had no ability to get any offense underway, and when he kicked it out, the three-pointers bounced off the rim. The Wolves easily took control of the game, leading by 4 by the buzzer.
The second quarter was more of the same from the Blazers. The Wolves came out with energy and hustle, and the Blazers looked like they were approaching possessions at half speed. At one point, the Wolves sped by three Blazer players up court to easily score on the break. Portland couldn't hit any shots, and Minnesota slowly built a lead. By the time it reached 11, Portland called another timeout. The Timberwolves were playing a physical game, defending hard and crashing the boards. Portland simply didn't respond. As the lead reached 13, Terry Stotts looked to the bench for energy, bringing in little-used power forward Thomas Robinson.
The Blazers closed to within 8 points at halftime, but still needed to find a spark. Lillard shot 5-10 for 12 points, but Aldridge vanished, scoring zero points on 0-4 shooting with 4 turnovers. And the 12 first-half turnovers demolished any real Blazer surge.
The third quarter opened, and the Wolves continued to dominate. The Blazers missed all their shots, and Minnesota crashed the lane for easy buckets. By the 8 minute mark, the Blazers stared at a 16 point deficit after scoring 4 points. At one point, Batum slipped, fell, and dropped the ball out of bounds. More bricks for the Blazers, more points for the Wolves, and the lead reached 20. Finally, the Blazers made their move, using a disjointed 11-1 run to close the deficit to 10 as the clock ran down. They gave up free throws for a 12 point lead, but had a 3-on-1 fast break in the final seconds. Instead of simply shooting a layin, a poor behind-the-back pass gave the ball back to the Wolves, who promptly nailed a three-pointer. A possible 10 point third quarter deficit grew back to 15 at the buzzer.
The Blazers, who scored 84 in one half in Denver, scored 51 after three quarters in Minnesota.
The fourth quarter opened with more missed three-pointers from the Blazers, but they cut the deficit to 12. They missed 11 straight three-pointers before Matthews finally hit one. Portland made another surge to pull within 8, then gave up a floater to Andrew Wiggins, followed by a turnover and a foul on the inbound pass. The deficit was 12 again. Finally, when all hope was lost, the Blazers went to their best three-point shooter: LaMarcus Aldridge. After a Batum block, he nailed an open three, then after another Batum block, Matthews swished a three as well. The Wolves called timeout, their lead slashed to 6.
After a timeout, an easy Lopez layup made it a 4 point deficit. But they couldn't get any closer, as Wiggins helped keep the Timberwolves ahead, and despite the increased defensive presence the Blazers ran out of miracles down the stretch. Wiggins hit the big shots, and the referees missed a few calls (including a goaltend) that went against the Blazers. But that's what happens when you're repeatedly in the role of playing comeback. For weeks, they've been playing with fire with their slow starts and mental errors, only to "out-talent" their opponents late. But every NBA team can burn you. It finally came back to haunt them against one of the worst teams in the league.
This is one of those games that can easily be dismissed as a fluke and to move on; quite the opposite. This game contains so many small lessons for the Blazers. This is a game where they should climb onto the plane, sit down, and pull out a mirror.
1. Your opponent is more prepared the second time you play them. This is a little like a baseball game where the pitcher goes through the order a second time. They've had a chance to see what you do, and will make adjustments. And, if you beat them the first time, they'll have extra motivation. Minnesota's players clearly remembered the loss in Portland, and their coaching staff deserves credit: The made a risky game plan (get physical, force the ball from Aldridge, hope they miss threes) and it paid off nicely. This isn't the last opponent who the Blazers have already beaten. In fact, the last two games of this trip are in Chicago and Indiana.
2. Brutal, physical play is still the Blazers' nemesis. The Wolves wasted no time in getting physical with the Blazers. And in classic Sloan-era Utah Jazz fashion, they dared the referees to call fouls. They didn't. And it took the Blazers right out of the game. Multiple airballs were caused with varying levels of defensive contact. Minnesota, a notoriously poor rebounding team, crashed the boards with the hunger of Santa on Christmas morning. And the Wolves found a surprise bonus: A lot of loose balls seemed magnetized to their hands. While there's a lot of talk about being scrappy to grab loose balls, many simply appear in front of one player; today most of those balls presented themselves to the Wolves. Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.
3. It's essential to find alternatives when three-pointers aren't falling. It's no secret that the Blazers offense revolves around the play of LaMarcus Aldridge (and to a lesser extent, Chris Kaman off the bench), forcing the defensive focus while kicking the ball out to open three-point shooters. In fact, Stan Van Gundy took a team to the Finals using a similar approach with Dwight Howard, but without the dynamic playmaking seen from a healthy Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. But what happens when the three-pointers aren't falling? That's a question the Blazers need to answer. Tonight, the answer was "toss up more three-pointers, giving the opponent long rebounds in transition". Sometimes shooting your way out of slump is great; other times you need to double down inside, and possibly force the referees to make foul calls when the defense gets aggressive.
4. Yet again, laziness and a lack of focus can be the best team's downfall. The description of the past 2+ weeks of Blazer play depends upon on the era in which you grew up listening to music. A broken record? A scratched CD? A corrupted hard drive? How about a latency in the connection to your cloud server? Anyway, no matter what, the result is the same: Hearing the same thing over and over again. The Blazers are never good at playing with confidence; they're the team you want to see when their backs are against the wall, or they feel disrespected. When confident, they made dumb plays (such as the first-half brain-fart turnovers, or the already-infamous 3-on-1 break behind the back pass). When their back is against the wall, they focus and dominate at both ends. They need to find a way to tap into this throughout games. They have the talent and the coaching to dominate teams; they just need to harness it through 48 minutes.
LaMarcus Aldridge finished 3-14 with 10 points after a scoreless first half. The Minnesota defense absolutely dominated him. His 10-rebound streak also deservedly came to an end. He looked terrible.
Damian Lillard was 9-24 tonight for 23 points, with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. But the deeper numbers tell us the real truth: He was 7-12 for two-point shooting, and 2-12 from three. Perhaps some more driving was in order to force some foul calls. His splint is clearly bothering his outside shot, and he played with it at multiple times. He looked terrible.
Wesley Matthews shot 7-13 (including 40% from three) for 18 points. This was a fairly typical Wesley night. But it's also a reminder that unless Wesley is just crazy-hot from three, he's still the third man in a Big Three rotation. That's ok; not long ago he was a supporting player, so this is still good overall. His post-up skills weren't seen as much tonight, and they could have been useful. He looked solid, though.
Nicolas Batum looks hurt. It's that simple. At one point, he was defending a fast break. A second later, as he jogged up court it passed by him. Late in the game he had a couple nice blocks and a steal, but it felt like a situation where he was expending energy he stored up for the rest of the game. He had 5 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. I expect the inevitable news story about the status of his knee. He contributed in multiple areas, but in the bigger picture, he looked terrible.
Robin Lopez is always solid, but his advantages have been noticeably mitigated by recent opponents. Adjustments at both ends can be expected from the Blazers. He didn't have a bad night, he was just a bit invisible on a night when the Blazers were dominated in the rebounding department. He added 8 points (on 50% shooting) with 8 rebounds and 3 assists. He may have had 2 or 4 more rebounds by tipping the ball out less often (and tonight, often into the hands of the Wolves). In the end, he didn't look great, but he wasn't the biggest problem on the court.
Chris Kaman did not want to lose this game. He took everything the Wolves could offer, and asked for more. The Wolves wanted to be physical, and he seemed to say "Great! Let's do this!". Like all the big men, he turned the ball over a lot against the Minnesota defense, but he also brought 8 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 assists in 18 minutes.
Allen Crabbe hit two three-pointers for 6 points but was otherwise quiet. He looks like he may become a solid rotation player in time, but scouting has caught up to him a little. The good news is that the coaching has some promising material to work with.
Steve Blake, Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson, and Dorell Wright played varying minutes but had one thing in common: With momentary exceptions, they were generally irrelevant and often looked terrible.
When 6 players get a listing of "looked terrible", including your two All-Stars, that's a bad omen.
The Blazers will not win many games with 20 turnovers. 13 of those turnovers came from Minnesota steals; this felt like a night where Portland underestimated the will of the Wolves.
The Blazers shot 12 free throws (making 10) compared to the Wolves' 33 free throws (making 25). That's a monster 15 point difference in a game the Blazers lost by 8 after trailing late by 4. While the Blazers were understandable grumpy at the lack of foul calls inside from Minnesota's aggressive defense, they needed to force the referees to make calls. Instead they shirked away and jacked up threes. Playoffs are built around physical defenses who don't get whistled; if they can't handle it when Minnesota does it, they need to find a solution soon.
The Wolves out-rebounded the Blazers, 56-38 (including 20 Wolves offensive rebounds). A few rebounds were simply bad bounces, but many were simply the Blazers playing out of position and thinking they could get away with it. There will be some uncomfortable looks in the video sessions from this game.
The Wolves were 1-12 from three. The Blazers knew exactly the kind of offense Minnesota would bring, and how to defend it. But the defense didn't show up until the second half, after the Wolves had been tearing the Blazers apart.
Every playoff team has a few games they'd like to forget. This will be one of those for Portland. But they need to decide if they want to bring full energy and focus for 48 minutes, or simply hope they can "turn it on" in the fourth quarter and steal wins. They now have games in two consecutive days against Chicago (Friday, 4pm) and Indiana (Saturday, 4pm), and each want to avenge earlier losses. The Blazers will be tired after a long road trip, and showing signs of injuries. Can they rise to the occasion? Let's find out.
Stop by the always-entertaining Canis Hoopus to congratulate them on a rare victory in a tough season.
Check out Ryan's Instant Recap with support from Sagar and Dylan.
Check out this week's edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast with Phil Naessens and Blazers Edge's own Dave Deckard... now on iTunes! You can now phone in your questions to our weekly podcast with Phil Naessens at 234-738-3394.
Please help send underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons to Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here.