The short-handed Blazers were able to stop the bleeding Friday night and put an end to their three-game losing streak with a home victory over the Utah Jazz. Tonight, they face the Minnesota Timberwolves -- likely without guard Kevin Martin and center Nikola Pekovic -- for the fourth and final time this season.
The last time these two teams met just two weeks ago, Portland pulled off the win in Minnesota, 117-110. However, that was with a healthy lineup; tonight, they'll be missing forward LaMarcus Aldridge, big man Joel Freeland and backup center Meyers Leonard.
Last night the Timberwolves crushed the Jazz behind 37 points and 12 rebounds from Kevin Love on 11-20 shooting -- not to mention his 10 assists that gave him the first trible-double of his career. This month, Love has hit about half his shots from the field but is scorching the net from downtown, connecting on over 43 percent of his three-pointers. Add to that 14.9 boards and 11.1 free-throws drawn per game, and it's pretty clear the Blazers will have their hands full trying to contain Love tonight. He's a decent shooter from just about anywhere in the halfcourt, but excels close to the hoop off of second-chance points and is a reliable jump-shooter.
Wing Corey Brewer likes to get out and finish in transition, boasting 52 percent field-goal shooting for the month. He'll try a couple threes a game, but he only makes about a quarter of them. Most of Brewer's damage comes closer to the hoop, though he's not shy at launching the corner-three even though he only makes about a third of them from either side.
Point guard Ricky Rubio -- who uncharacteristically torched the Blazers for 25 points on 8-19 shooting the last time the two teams met -- shouldn't be a huge offensive threat, on paper at least. He's shot about 40 percent from both the field and from outside the last couple months, which is an upgrade on his season stats. Rubio's passing has been through the roof, though, as he's averaging about 10 assists a night. Rubio's also getting to the free-throw line about five times a game.
Backup guard J.J. Barea is a spark plug off the bench, good for 44 percent shooting, mostly on threes and drives to the hoop. In the key, he's not a good finisher among taller players, and his outside shot has been off in recent weeks.
Minnesota coach Rick Adelman plays about 8-9 guys a night, depending on health and match-ups, with forwards Chase Budinger, Dante Cunningham and Luc Mbah a Moute picking up big minutes. Budinger is a great three-point shooter, hitting almost 40 percent of his attempts from outside recently, while Cunningham and Mbah a Moute connect on about 44 percent of their field-goal tries.
Overall, Minnesota's offense has been pretty average this month and they don't stand much of a chance of winning unless Love has a solid game.
The Blazers have had some similar struggles of their own.
In the absence of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, point guard and fellow All-Star Damian Lillard has upped his shot-attempts, hitting 47.5 percent from the field and a third of his threes in February. Lillard has gotten up 49 shots in the two games since the All-Star break, leading the Blazers to a win two nights ago against the Jazz with seven assists. Expect Lillard to again take command of the Blazers offense, though Rubio is an effective defensive guard and will look to put the clamps down on the Blazers' sophomore point guard.
Guards Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams have picked up a lot of the shots that Aldridge would've otherwise taken if healthy, and both are about 40 percent from the field this month. Williams continues to be one of the Blazers' best threats from downtown, and Matthews has been a solid force from outside, going a combined 3-8 from beyond the arc since the All-Star break. Williams and Matthews will again likely generate a lot of Portland's offense from the backcourt tonight.
Wings Nicolas Batum and C.J. McCollum are both 46 percent shooters from the field this month, though Batum is a sub-30 percent three-point shooter while McCollum has hit 46 percent of his long-range shots. McCollum's played somewhat limited minutes even after the recent Portland injuries as coach Terry Stotts experiments with different lineups, so it's unclear whether or not he'll surpass the 15 minutes a game he's picked up in the last two. Unless Matthews or Williams is struggling, McCollum might be splitting his time off the bench with wing Will Barton, who played 18 minutes against the Jazz two nights ago and lit up the crowd with an in-game 360-degree dunk.
Center Robin Lopez and forwards Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and Victor Claver make up the big man rotation for Stotts. Lopez has been as consistent as ever, making half of his shots. Robinson has been a bit more sporadic, occasionally picking up points via his hustle but largely being detrimental on the offensive end and Claver has been mostly a non-factor.
Minnesota's defense has been okay this month, but the 'Wolves still allow a lot of ball movement even with solid perimeter defenders in Rubio and Brewer. They don't really do anything exceptionally well on the defensive side of the ball, but they will force plenty of turnovers, behind the two steals a night garnered by both Rubio and Brewer. The last time the two teams met, Portland limited the effectiveness of Minnesota's backcourt and only turned the ball over 13 times and won 117-110.
The Blazers' defense has been pretty average; it's managed to slow down weaker teams but has given in to better teams. As a whole, the Blazers' defense doesn't force turnovers, doesn't prevent ball movement and gives up points at a pretty average rate. They'll need to play a bit aggressively tonight and get some points on the run like they did against Utah last night when they forced 14 turnovers, as the Timberwolves are terrible at defending in transition.
Both teams rebound well, but Minnesota has Love, one of the best rebounders in the league. Still, Lopez proved a couple nights ago he can assume an alpha-dog role on the boards, reeling in a career-high 18 rebounds against the Jazz. Like the Blazers, though, the 'Wolves only have one healthy elite rebounder, and will rely on contributions from the entire team. Last night they crushed the Jazz 49-34 on the glass, but Portland has out-rebounded both the Spurs and Utah without a majority of its frontcourt the last couple games, so tonight could be a toss-up if Love and Lopez cancel each other out on the boards.
Like the last two nights, this game is hard to predict; Portland is missing its best player and both backup centers, but the 'Wolves will be without center Ronny Ruriaf, guard Kevin Martin and most likely Pekovic. If the Blazers can handle his teammates, they'll probably be able to absorb a big night from Love. Likewise, Portland will have to have solid contributions from more than just Lillard if they hope to escape with a victory tonight. This game will likely go to the team that can put together the best attack from its secondary players, because both All-Stars -- Love and Lillard -- have stepped up in big ways with multiple teammates injured lately.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter