Portland Trail Blazers (8-12) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (8-10)
Saturday, December 5
Target Center | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Chris Kaman (Questionable - Ankle | Minnesota injury report: Nikola Pekovic (Out - Achilles)
SBN Affiliate: Cannis Hoopus | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The Portland Trail Blazers (8-12) look to win their second straight game tonight in a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves (8-10) at the Target Center. Minnesota is hoping to rebound after back to back losses to the Clippers and Magic earlier this week.
Tonight's contest will be the second time the teams have met this season. The Blazers won the first game 106-101 on Nov. 2 by overcoming a 17-point first half deficit. Damian Lillard led the way for the Blazers with 34 points and seven assists, while Kevin Martin scored 24 points for the Timberwolves. The loss was particularly stinging for the Timberwolves as it was their home opener and the first game in Minnesota since the death of Flip Saunders.
Since the last time these teams met, the Timberwolves have proven themselves to be much improved from last year. The Timberwolves have been competitive in nearly every game they have played, with only one double digit loss since Nov. 5 (and that was against Golden State!), and already have half as many wins as they did during the entirety of the 2014-2015 campaign. David Naylor of Cannis Hoopus recently pointed out that the players are noticeably frustrated after losses, an encouraging sign of life after over a decade of losing.
The Timberwolves are headlined by a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, starts at small forward and is averaging 22.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He has shown improvement this season by diversifying his offensive game after relying primarily on post-ups and isolation sets last year.
Towns has not been getting as much media attention as fellow rookies Kristaps Porzingis or Jahlil Okafor, but he has arguably been the best first year player in the league thus far. Towns is averaging 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds on 50.7 percent shooting in 27.4 minutes per game. Some Timberwolves fans have bemoaned Head Coach Sam Mitchell's decision to play Gorgui Dieng at center in place of Towns in late game situations. Mitchell has refused to explain the reasoning behind his decision, but it has been speculated that the franchise wants to avoid overwhelming Towns or wishes to more aggressively assess Dieng's development. Dieng is averaging 7.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Fans have also been frustrated with Mitchell's handling of Zach LaVine's minutes. LaVine has spent the majority of his time at backup point guard, despite being better suited to play shooting guard. As a point guard, LaVine has struggled to get around screens to stay with opposing point guards on defense, and has not fared well as a primary playmaker on offense. Many feel that pairing him with point guard Ricky Rubio would alleviate those concerns and maximize his abilities.
For the last several games, Kevin Martin has been Minnesota's starting shooting guard. Martin is a streaky shooter who can single handedly shoot a team in or out of a game. Fortunately, he's also a huge negative on the defensive end, which could lead to some offensive fireworks if both teams' backcourts get hot tonight. Critics acknowledge that Martin is still a great scorer, but note that he is also 32 years old and does not fit Minnesota's overall youth movement. The decision to continue playing him 25 minutes a night may not be in the team's long term interests.
Ricky Rubio is also especially important; the Timberwolves are 1-16 over the last 17 games he has missed. Rubio is a decent on-ball defender who can create turnovers if the opponent is lazy with the possession, but his real strength is offense. Rubio is a passing savant and a great ball-handler; he uses his abilities to create unique scoring opportunities for teammates. Rubio's weakness is shooting - he is averaging only 34 percent from the field and 13.6 percent from three on more than two attempts per game.
The Timberwolves' starting lineup is rounded out by their living legend Kevin Garnett. Despite his advanced age and clearly diminished skills, Garnett's presence is more than ceremonial - he has been entrusted with mentoring Towns. The two have built a strong relationship and Garnett's influence seems to be having a major positive effect on the rookie.
Interestingly, the Timberwolves also employ Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller as de facto mentors for Wiggins and LaVine, respectively. It remains an open question as to whether or not locking up three roster spots with mentors is an efficient use of personnel. For example, the Timberwolves may be sacrificing a chance to take a flier on a Moe Harkless-type player to hang on to all three of their veterans.
Further, Prince, Garnett, and Martin have all appeared in most of the Timberwolves games and are averaging at least 16 minutes per game each. One could question whether or not those minutes would be better allocated to younger players.
Rounding out the rotation are Nemanja Bjelica, Shabazz Muhammad, and Adreian Payne.
Keys to winning
Keep Minnesota off the foul line: Minnesota does a lot of damage at the foul line, averaging the third most free throw attempts (27.8) and most free throw makes (22.4) per game. Wiggins leads the way with 8 attempts per game. The Blazers, on the other hand, give up the third most free throw attempts per game (26.4). If Portland can stop Minnesota from getting to the line with solid interior defense it will take away Minnesota's primary means of offense.
Backcourt must score: This one is a no-brainer - Lillard and C.J. McCollum must take advantage of Minnesota's weak and/or inexperienced backcourt defense. In general, when those two score in bunches, the offense does well, and there are definitely backcourt matchups to be exploited tonight.
Win the three point battle decisively: Minnesota is not a good 3-point shooting team - Lillard and McCollum are averaging more threes per game than the entire Timberwolves roster. If the Blazers can run their offense as well as they did against Indiana and create some open 3-pointers, it is unlikely that Minnesota will be able to retaliate.
The Blazers lead the all-time series against the Timberwolves 74-29, and lead in Minnesota 33-18.
This is the second of four matchups between Portland and Minnesota. They will meet in Portland on Jan. 31 and April 9.
Minnesota has struggled to a 2-7 record at the Target Center this season, compared to a 6-3 road record.
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