The Blazers head to Minnesota tonight to face the Timberwolves for the second time in the last two weeks.
The 'Wolves play like a .500 basketball team, often beating teams that are clearly a notch below them in talent while still losing games to better teams.
Minnesota coach Rick Adelman has lately been relying a lot on forward Kevin Love and guard Kevin Martin to generate offense, with Love averaging 20.3 field-goal attempts a game over his last five and Martin averaging 15.6.
Love has been on an impressive streak recently, hitting almost half his overall shots, a third of his threes, pulling down 17.8 rebounds and scoring 32 points a night while getting to the line a whopping 13.5 times. A lot of Love's offense comes off second-chance points inside, where he's a good scorer. About a quarter of his shots are in the mid-range, but Love attempts over five three-pointers a game. When the two teams first met in December in a Minnesota win, Love hit four of his seven threes, scoring 29 points. Two weeks ago in a Portland home win, Love was held to 15 points on 1-3 shooting from downtown. If current trends hold, Love will again be aggressive tonight as he's been shooting a high volume of shots recently.
Martin has been less effective in recent weeks, though he's been taking a ton of shots. His field-goal percentage is in the low 40s and he's only made a third of his three-point tries. His shots are spread fairly evenly across the floor, though he likes jump-shots, even if he's not very efficient between 10 and 20 feet. Martin is at his best either attacking the rim or off the catch-and-shoot from outside.
The rest of the Timberwolves shots are relatively evenly spread between the seven remaining men in Adelman's main nine-man rotation.
Guard J.J. Barea and Forward Dante Cunningham have both averaged double-figure scoring the last couple weeks. Barea is not a great shooter from anywhere this season, but he's serviceable from outside, hitting 37.5 percent of his threes. He drives to the hoop somewhat often, but he has a hard time finishing among taller players in the middle. Cunningham is mostly a decent jump-shooter, but when he plays inside -- not particularly often for a power forward -- he is an excellent finisher and hustle player.
Guards Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved and wing Corey Brewer are all struggling from behind the arc their last five games, going a combined 27.3 percent. Rubio and Shved have otherwise also struggled from the field, but Brewer is a pretty good scorer in the key.
Big man Ronny Turiaf is a good shooter but doesn't take many shots in Adelman's offense. Forward Luc Mbah a Moute shoots more but isn't efficient, and forward Chase Budinger is still rounding into playing shape after missing the first two months of the season, hitting about a third of all his attempts. Usual starting center Nikola Pekovic is day-to-day with an ankle injury that's kept him sidelined for a few weeks, and he's not likely to play tonight after just recently having a walking boot removed.
Overall, it seems the only guarantee from the 'Wolves offensively is that Love and Martin will each take a ton of shots. The rest of the offensive game plan seems a bit inconsistent, and it may be starting to affect the play of the team, as Adelman has been switching off between playing Rubio and Barea at point guard down the stretch.
Minnesota's defense has been just as erratic as the offense, sometimes impressively cutting off opposing teams' offenses, then allowing 110-120 points the next night, depending on the match-up. Typically, bad teams are unable to score efficiently against the Timberwolves and good teams are able to ring up points. The Pelicans, Bulls and Jazz were recently held to under 86 points a piece in recent games against Minnesota. Conversely, the Warriors, Blazers and Hawks all have dropped 115 or more points each on the 'Wolves in the last several weeks. As a whole, Minnesota has allowed 44.1 percent from the field and a solid 32.7 percent from three-point range over the last 10 games. The saving grace for the Timberwolves has been a pretty potent offense when it gets rolling and an ability to get to the free-throw line, attempting almost 27 shots from the stripe each night.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard busted out of a recent offensive slump in a big way last night against the Pacers, dropping 38 points on 15-26 field-goal shooting, 4-7 from outside. Slowly but surely, Lillard's numbers have increased, as he's now sitting at over 47 percent from the field his last five games. He also dished out 11 assists last night against the best defense in the league, effectively bringing up his passing numbers, too.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge remains consistent at about 41 percent from the field, attempting somewhere in the ballpark of 20 shots a night. Free-throws have helped Aldridge when his shot isn't falling, but even those have decreased the last few weeks from earlier in the season when he was drawing more fouls inside. Still, he's a consistent 22/12 guy right now, a reliable forward who usually makes teams pay whether or not they choose to double him -- if left in single-coverage, he often shoots over his defender or outmuscles him on the way to the basket; if double-teamed, Aldridge can kickstart the offense by swinging it to the open man, initiating a passing sequence that often ends in an open three-pointer when executed well.
Guard Wesley Matthews was aggressive last night against the Pacers, attempting 22 shots. He's hit about 40 percent of all his field-goals the last couple weeks, the Blazers' best three-point shooter over that span. Against smaller defenders, Portland coach Terry Stotts often opts to post Matthews up, and his back-to-the-basket game has expanded this year as he's been somewhat successful when posting up.
Wing Nicolas Batum couldn't ride a string of back-to-back solid games against the Wizards and Knicks, turning in a relatively invisible offensive performance last night. Normally, though, Batum has offset his recent stretch of poor outside-shooting with drives to the hoop. Which Batum will show up tonight? In two games against the 'Wolves this year, he's hit about half his shots en route to almost 17 points a game, along with seven boards and four assists.
Center Robin Lopez went 8-15 last night, scoring 17 and bringing in 14 rebounds to add to his solid play that's been on display all season. At times, Lopez appears to be the Blazers' most reliable scoring option, and he's actually the team-leader in field-goal percentage the last five games, hitting half his shots. Fellow big man Joel Freeland has scrapped his way to almost 14 minutes a night, valiantly backing up Lopez, often defending much bigger post players. Forward Thomas Robinson has been mostly ineffective.
Forward Dorell Wright has found his way back into the main playing rotation, but his shot is still in the tank, both from inside the arc and from outside. Rookie guard C.J. McCollum was a scoring spark off the bench last night, hitting all four of his shots for nine points, but he's still below 40 percent on his field-goals lately and needs to turn in a few more solid performances from downtown before he can reverse his 20 percent shooting from deep.
Portland's defense still needs work, as they've allowed teams to score on them from all over the court lately. Besides the Knicks and Grizzles, the Blazers haven't held a team below 100 points since a mid-January win against the Cavaliers at home. Portland hasn't forced turnovers all season, which usually doesn't come back to bite them because they don't the ball over, either. Lately, though, the Blazers have been coughing up the ball more than the opposition, which further impedes the offensive execution.
Both teams are great at rebounding, with Love registering some ridiculous numbers this year, grabbing almost a quarter of all available rebounds the last five games. Turiaf and Cunningham are also good individual rebounders. Aldridge, Freeland, Robinson and Lopez continue to put up excellent numbers on the glass, an effective frontcourt unit on the boards, particularly on the offensive end. So far this year, Love has won the rebounding battle against Aldridge. Don't be surprised to see another difficult outing for Aldridge in the rebounding department; Love just pulled down 19 last night in a loss to the Pelicans.
Portland and Minnesota have split their games this year, both teams winning at home against each other. Tonight, both teams will be coming off of back-to-backs, though the 'Wolves played a bit further from home and got off to a later start than the Blazers. One factor to keep an eye on tonight will be Ricky Rubio's defense, as he leads the NBA with 2.6 steals a game and Portland has lost the ball recently in games on some ill-advised passes. If Rubio can turn those turnovers into points, the Blazers will have a hard time matching with some of their own.
If Portland can win at the three-point line, the Blazers will help themselves out tremendously tonight, and free-throws could also be a deciding factor. Will the Blazers come out flat after a tough overtime loss last night to the Pacers, or will they regroup and finish this road trip 2-2? With Pekovic likely out -- a huge Blazer-killer this year -- Portland has a chance to pull off a road win in Minnesota tonight and pick up some momentum heading into a Tuesday home match-up against the Thunder.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter