Portland Trail Blazers (1-2) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-0)
Monday, November 2
Target Center | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Cliff Alexander (Doubtful), Gerald Henderson (Out) | Minnesota injury report: Andrew Wiggins (Day-to-Day), Nikola Pekovic (Out)
SBN Affiliate: Canis Hoopus | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The Portland Trail Blazers hope to rebound from a pair of losses over the weekend to the Phoenix Suns when they face the 2-0 Minnesota Timberwolves tonight, who will be playing what will likely be an emotional first home game since the death of coach Flip Saunders.
While Portland has struggled with inconsistent play thus far, the Wolves have opened with their first ever 2-0 start on the road, behind stellar play from point guard Ricky Rubio and first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
A career 36.8 percent shooter, Rubio has had success from the floor this week, hitting at a 48 percent clip and dishing out 11 assists per game, including a monster 28 point, 14 assist performance in the opener against the Lakers.
An unselfish playmaker, Rubio becomes deadly in the pick and roll if he is hitting his 18-foot jumper, as seen in the above video. Perhaps even more impressively, Rubio is averaging nine free throw attempts per game so far.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard struggles to fight through picks, and may be tempted to go under the screen, but if Rubio continues his hot shooting, the Blazers are going to have to adjust. On the flip side of the coin, Rubio is a surprisingly plus defender, able to stay in front of his man and generate a lot of loose balls with his active hands.
Speaking of active hands, Karl-Anthony Towns has looked every bit like the game changing center he was touted as when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. A legit 7-footer with solid shot blocking ability, Towns absolutely dominated the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night, hitting 11 of 19 shots for 28 points, to go along with 14 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
Towns showed excellent footwork and has the ability to step outside and hit out to 3-point range with ease. This is going to present a challenge for Portland's big men, who won't be able help on the aforementioned Rubio pick-and-rolls without conceding open jumpers for Towns off of the screen.
Oh yeah, Minnesota has some other guy too. What's his name? Oh, that's right, Andrew Wiggins. Last year's No. 1 overall pick and NBA Rookie of the Year, Wiggins has been hampered by a sore back thus far in the season, shooting only 30 percent from the field through two games, but will command attention from Portland's wings regardless. Wiggins has superior athleticism and has gotten better at generating points (the main knock against him coming into the NBA), especially at the rim.
Like Rubio, Wiggins is considered a plus defender. In fact, Minnesota has been winning with defense so far this year, which is a far cry from last season. The Timberwolves lead the league in defensive field goal percentage, with opponents only shooting 34 percent against them. Additionally, according to basketball-reference.com, they have the league's seventh best DRtg, at 95.4. Obviously, we're only two games into the new season, but the Wolves have put together eight quarters of stingy, high energy defense; nothing to sneeze at.
Setting the tone for the interior defense, along with Towns, is 39-year-old Kevin Garnett. Long past his prime, Garnett is still one of the better pick-and-roll defenders in the league. Fellow veteran Tayshaun Prince starts at the wing and still does an adequate job matching up against small forwards. Though they are not highly productive at this stage in their careers, Garnett and Prince are being relied on to help teach the young Wolves how to play defense as a unit, and the results so far have been a success.
Off the bench, Minnesota features veteran sharp shooter Kevin Martin, talented Serbian big man Nemanja Bjelica, and promising youngsters Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. While none of these players performs very consistently, they all have enough offensive talent that they can't be neglected.
Keys to a Blazer Victory
Set Solid Screens: With Minnesota's ability to hedge or fight through on the pick-and-roll, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are going to have a hard time finding any penetration lanes unless setting quality picks is a point of emphasis for Portland's big men.
Knock down (quality) 3-point shots: So far this season, we've seen very little decrease in the volume of 3-point shots that the Blazers are attempting. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Portland still features some shooters on this year's squad, but there have been a few too many quick pull-up shots from distance with more than 14 seconds left on the shot clock. The Blazers don't need to give up on the long ball by any means, but they would be well served to be more patient in looking for and exploiting mismatches, rather than bombing away indiscriminately.
The guards are going to have to burn some energy on defense: Lillard's struggles fighting through screens are well-documented and while historically it's been okay to dare Rubio to beat you with his jumper, we've covered how well he is shooting so far this season. McCollum is going to have a tough matchup guarding the explosive Wiggins. One of the difficulties with the small guard lineup that the Blazers employ is that it becomes very difficult to hide either of them on defense. Even at his advanced age, Prince is 6-foot-9 and would be able to do work on McCollum, should Portland have versatile defender Al Farouq-Aminu guard Wiggins for stretches.
Don't let Towns get comfortable: Towns has demonstrated stellar footwork around the basket with scoring post moves that look anything but rookie-esque. Mason Plumlee, and either Ed Davis or Meyers Leonard are going to need to play Towns physically without being overly aggressive. Pushing him out of his comfort spots on the block, jostling for position on their way down court, and generally making life as tough as possible for the talented rookie are going to be something that Towns starts to see more of as opponents realize that he is a legitimate threat to beat them. The Blazers need to set the tone with him early and not let up.
Bench scoring: Ed Davis does the dirty work, but no one aside from Moe Harkless is putting the ball in the hoop off the bench with any regularity. Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh are shooting 33 percent combined in over 103 minutes so far this season. Portland needs bench scoring to come from somewhere, and both players are being counted on to produce, even if just in limited doses.
It's been a long time since Minnesota could be considered anything close to a favorite against Portland, but here we are. While they are still unproven over the long haul, the Timberwolves have amassed a nice collection of young talent. They are playing aggressively, confidently, and have the emotional push of Saunders' unfortunate passing.
The Blazers are desperate to get a win after dropping consecutive games against the Suns where the offense went through extended periods of aimlessness. Portland needs to get good shots for players other than their starting back court. If they're able to do so, they could walk out of the Target Center with the victory.