There's an old saying, "Nothing good comes easy". By that definition, the Portland Trail Blazers' 106-101 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves was plenty good; it certainly didn't come easily. The Timberwolves exposed many of Portland's weaknesses, almost beating them at their own game. But the Blazers had Damian Lillard on their side and the Timbewolves didn't. On this night, that was enough for the win.
The evening started with a tribute to Timberwolves Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who passed away from Hodgkin's Lymphoma on October 25th. Blazer's Edge extends condolences and fond remembrances to Saunders' family and the Minnesota Timberwolves organization.
When the game got underway, the Timberwolves played inspired basketball while the Blazers played like they were still in warm-ups. Portland's first quarter was abysmal, perhaps the worst they've played all season. Their shots came from the perimeter; most of them misses. Their passes looked as crisp as last year's corn flakes. Minnesota feasted on turnovers and conversions throughout the period.
Portland's defense was no better. After the 7:30 mark the 'Wolves scored on 13 of 14 trips down the floor, running, hitting jumpers, and forcing the Blazers into the foul penalty by breaking down perimeter defenders. Sloppy didn't even begin to describe Portland's effort. It was messy...nearing revolting. 6 points in the paint from Lillard in the final 3:30 stood between the Blazers and abject disaster. The 'Wolves led 34-21 after one.
Al-Farouq Aminu got a hot start for the Blazers in the second, scoring 8 points in the first 3 minutes including a pair of threes. Shabazz Muhammad countered for Minnesota, scoring 6 early in the frame. But Aminu does plenty of other things on the floor, Muhammad, not so much. The Timberwolves got tripped up by the growing pains of point guard Zach Lavine and generally poor defense. (The poor defense conveniently appeared when the Blazers started making the game hard on them.)
Minnesota scored 0 field goals in the final 7 minutes of the first half. The Blazers weren't exactly on fire, but Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 9 between them and assisted on 4 other shots. Portland crawled back to a 53-53 tie at intermission, an impressive feat.
The third quarter belonged to Lillard, who decided he'd make up for Portland's deficiencies with a good lick of offense. Like a guitarist who knows the set is sucking hard, Dame blasted out a 15-minute solo riff with the amp cranked to 12, drowning out everyone else. Once he got rolling the 'Wolves couldn't stop him from any range. Lillard scored 15 in the period, pushing his team to 30 total.
Portland's main flaw in the third was their utter inability to stop Minnesota's inside attack. Every time the 'Wolves got the ball near the rim they scored. Guards, forwards...everybody took a turn. But guards Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin stalled their team's momentum by hoisting shot after shot from the perimeter. Martin connected on a couple, but their guitars had one string out of tune. Melody...melody...CLANG! "What the heck?!?" The Blazers led 83-80 going into the fourth.
Portland surged ahead 99-89 with 5:40 to go behind monstrous rebounding from their forwards. Minnesota had kept Portland contained on the boards most of the night, but in the fourth the Blazers finally slapped some secret sauce on the burger. Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh took care of the defensive end, Aminu shone on the offensive glass. Portland scooped up 11 offensive rebounds for the game; more than half of them came in the fourth.
But the Timberwolves weren't giving up. They forced turnovers, pushing the tempo at every opportunity. This is supposed to be one of Portland's strengths. So far this season the offense turns random and the defense inadequate every time another team runs on the Blazers. A couple of layups and a Karl-Anthony Towns three-pointer cut the lead to 2, 99-97, with 4:25 remaining on the clock.
Portland would miss a bevy of long shots as the game wound down, scraping by with only 5 points in the final 4 minutes. But Minnesota would score only 4 themselves, missing free throws, layups, and short jumpers.
Three close calls went Portland's way in the final minute. Andrew Wiggins got dinged for offensive basket interference on a tip-in, the review of which took 5 minutes because it was so tight. On film the call looked correct but worse tip-ins are routinely allowed. On the next play the Blazers nearly committed a 24-second violation but another long replay ruled that CJ McCollum's layup had barely nicked the rim on the way up. Either a violation or continuation of play would have given the ball to Minnesota, as Mason Plumlee tipped the ball out of bounds after the McCollum miss. Because the whistle blew for the overturned violation, the play ended in a jump ball instead. Minnesota won the tip so no lasting harm was done. But the very next play Plumlee and Towns tied up for a rebound, resulting in another jump ball. Plumlee held down Towns by the shoulder while Towns grabbed Plumlee's left wrist...seemingly equal infractions. The whistle went against Towns and Portland gained possession.
The parade of referee follies left Portland up 2, 103-101 with 12 seconds remaining. Plumlee drew a foul and converted 1 of 2 free throws, putting the Blazers ahead 104-101. Minnesota had a chance for the tying three with 10 seconds left but Allen Crabbe stabbed the ball away from Kevin Martin and streaked to the other end for a layup, giving the Blazers the 106-101 victory.
After getting sledgehammered by the Phoenix Suns starters for two straight games, Damian Lillard and the Portland Starting 5 showed up strong tonight. The evening belonged to Lillard and his 34 points, but McCollum and Aminu had excellent outings as well. Lillard playing like a superstar with a couple teammates backing him up was a welcome sight for the Blazers.
Portland's 24 second-chance points were just as welcome. For most of the game their rebounding ranged from limp to adequate. This team is supposed to dominate the glass. In the fourth period they did. That saved the win as much as anything.
Other than that, it was a matter of "just enough" for the Blazers. Giving up 16 turnovers and 10 steals hurt them. They forced 14 turnovers in reply but they need to win that battle, not just stay close. So, too, with paint points and fast break points. Minnesota won the former category 48-42 and the latter 16-13. Those numbers are more befitting last year's Blazers than the new version.
Portland had a clear advantage in three-point shooting tonight, hitting 9-30 to Minnesota's 3-13. 30% shooting does't seem great, but the Timberwolves defend the arc well. It goes down as a positive with an asterisk.
Allowing the opponent 39 free throws while attempting only 20 themselves goes down as a negative with an exclamation point. Minnesota has been great at drawing fouls early in the season, but this may become a chronic Portland problem.
But hey, if Lillard becomes the Magic Eraser for Portland's woes, the Blazers will take that and call it good. Narrow or obvious, pretty or ugly, a win's a win. Beating Minnesota is a lot better than losing to Minnesota. That's what counts.
Damian Lillard did everything you could want on the offensive side of the ball tonight. 14-25 shooting, 4-9 from the arc, and his marksmanship loosened up the middle of the floor, allowing penetration into the paint and dishes to jump shooters. 7 assists against 2 turnovers also looked plenty good for the fumble-prone Lillard.
CJ McCollum played more like Lillard's usual this season, shooting 7-18 for 18 points with 4 turnovers against 4 assists and 6 rebounds. He looked smooth and confident through it all. He and Lillard just don't have a rhythm yet.
Al-Farouq Aminu has enough rhythm right now for everybody, scoring 16 points on 7-12 shooting, 2-5 from distance, with 9 rebounds. He frustrated everybody he defended as well, including Andrew Wiggins. He picked up 5 personal fouls in 32 minutes on the way, but at least he earned them.
Meyers Leonard played only 24 minutes, likely because he couldn't hit a shot from any range. He fired 1-7 for 4 points, missing all 4 of his three-point attempts. Perhaps Leonard is putting too much pressure on himself (and the lineup is putting too much pressure on him) to be a three-point shooter. He flourished when his game was more mixed and his shooting ability was flying under the radar. Right now I wouldn't trust him anywhere near the radar. He'd probably break it with his jumper. The Blazers either need to get him easier shots or move him to the bench to play against second units for a while. 7 rebounds in 24 minutes tonight was great, but Portland can get those rebounds from other players. They need Meyers confident and hitting.
Mason Plumlee continues to do quiet work with mixed results. He hit 4-5 shots and is the only Portland big man who looks like he knows what to do with the ball right now. He also committed 6 turnovers, in part because the Blazers are using him in odd positions. Yes, he can be a playmaker but he can't be THE playmaker, especially if other people are standing and ill-spaced around him. When he dribbles running downcourt Plumlee looks brilliant for a 7-footer. When he dribbles in the halfcourt he just looks like a 7-footer.
Ed Davis did his usual work, 11 rebounds in 20 minutes and some nice defense. The guy is good at what he does.
Noah Vonleh got 19 minutes tonight. He rebounded well enough but 2 turnovers and 3 fouls...he's half ready, half not. You can see why the Blazers got him but you can also see why Charlotte didn't play him.
Moe Harkless played 17 minutes and had a relatively quiet night.
Allen Crabbe had the big play at the end of the night to camouflage a 3-10 outing, 1-4 from distance, in 25 minutes.
Links and Notes
Karl-Anthony Towns looks like he could develop into something special.
Every time I see Minnesota play I wish Ricky Rubio could hit a shot. I love watching him until he shoots the ball.
On the upcoming podcast (taped before this game) I suggested that the first two games this week were interesting because Minnesota and the Utah Jazz bookend the Blazers, Minnesota being slightly below Portland and Utah being slightly above, both providing marks of reference. I'd hoped to see the Blazers look a little better than they did tonight, but I also may be more impressed with the Timberwolves than I used to be. They may have a future.
The Trail Blazers did not reach agreements with Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless before tonight's deadline for extending players on rookie contracts.
Welcome Ryan Rosback, who did his first Instant Recap tonight. Check it out and say hello.
Canis Hoopus always gives you solid Timberwolves stuff with attitude.
We are looking to send 2000 underprivileged kids to the March 28th game versus the Sacramento Kings. Click here to see how you can send someone who might otherwise never get to see a game!
The Blazers play the Utah Jazz at 6:00 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday.