Portland Trail Blazers (41-19, No. 3 in the West) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-47, No. 15 in the West)
Saturday, March 7
Target Center; Minneapolis, MN | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Timberwolves: Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Robbie Hummel
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Life without Wesley Matthews in the lineup begins tonight for the Portland Trail Blazers, as they head to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves.
Matthews, who had started all 60 games at shooting guard for the Blazers this season and had been among the league-leaders in both three-pointers attempted and made, ruptured his left Achilles in a non-contact play in the third quarter of Thursday's win over the Mavericks. He will miss the remainder of the season.
Fortunately for Portland, coach Terry Stotts will have a game tonight against the Timberwolves -- losers of four straight and owners of the worst record in the Western Conference -- to give his rotation a test drive without Matthews before receiving three days off to rest, repair and practice.
Minnesota is also in talent evaluation-mode, but while the Blazers are trying to iron out a solid backcourt rotation in preparation of a potentially deep playoff run this spring, the 'Wolves have both eyes fixed on next year and beyond; Wins and losses are inconsequential at this point.
The Timberwolves have picked up two wins in seven tries since the All-Star break, the last coming a week-and-a-half ago against the Wizards. In that span, the 'Wolves have struggled to do just about anything with relative efficiency on the offensive end of the floor, toiling among the lower ranks of the league in points scored and assists per game, along with overall field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. They don't turn the ball over much, but their possessions often end fruitless if they're not getting to the free throw line. For such a young team, Minnesota doesn't push the pace nearly as much as you might expect.
Prized rookie forward Andrew Wiggins is the centerpiece of Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders' attack, able to play a little more off the ball than he had earlier in the year with a healthy Ricky Rubio now manning the point. Wiggins' jumper from both outside and from the midrange is far from reliable, but he pushes the ball into the paint for half his shots, where he's a great finisher. Playing mostly to his strengths lately, Wiggins has hit 47.9 percent of his field goals since the trade deadline, averaging 20.9 points a game. He draws a lot of shooting fouls, hitting over 73 percent of his free throws this year.
Guard Kevin Martin, the 'Wolves de facto floor-spreader on a roster that is completely devoid of reliable outside shooters, has made only 30.3 percent of the 5.5 threes a game he's launched since the All-Star break. He's a serviceable midrange shooter and has finished well at the rim recently, but most of his points come from jumpers.
Big man Nikola Pekovic rarely ventures outside of the paint offensively, and he's been in a bit of a shooting slump recently, making about a third of his shots the last couple weeks. His huge frame and brute strength allow him to be effective regardless of how well his shot's falling, though, as he's capable of setting devastating screens while taking up plenty of space. Pekovic's frontcourt running-mate, the recently re-acquired Kevin Garnett, rarely shoots but when he does, it's from 10-15 feet out and it's nearly automatic. At this point, Garnett's main utility comes on defense and he's only good for about 19 minutes a night at 38 years old.
Rubio rounds out the 'Wolves starting lineup, and while fans in Minnesota will point out his ability to be a difference-maker defensively and as a passer, he still remains unable to shoot with efficiency from anywhere on the floor. Rubio's best spots come in the midrange, where he's hit 39.1 percent of his shots since the All-Star break. Otherwise, he's just 1-for-9 at the rim in that time and shooting 17.4 percent from deep. Give Rubio credit for his strengths, but until he develops at least pedestrian shooting numbers, the 24-year-old Spaniard will be left out of most conversations about elite NBA point guards, and rightfully so.
The Timberwolves' bench rotation features the veteran presence of guard Gary Neal -- who's getting up plenty of shots but shooting below 40 percent the last seven games and making just a third of his threes -- to go with the youthful upside of center Gorgui Dieng, power forward Adreian Payne and guard Zach LaVine. Dieng has decent range but his attempts are limited, Payne has been struggling recently and LaVine has been used out of position at point guard all year by Saunders, though he's improved slightly lately with the health of Rubio and has shown flashes of his ability to score in transition, at the rim and from the perimeter. He's still far from bankable on a night-to-night basis, however.
The 'Wolves' defense hasn't been great all season, and even after the trade deadline acquisition of Garnett and with a healthy Rubio returning to the lineup, Minnesota still has plenty of holes on that end. The opposition has easy paths to the rim, and no team in the league has been worse than the Timberwolves at defending within the perimeter this year. Only the Knicks have held down the three-point line less effectively.
Portland comes into tonight's game on a five-game winning streak, holding the Mavericks to a season-low 75 points at home on Thursday night. The Blazers have the fifth-best Offensive Rating in the NBA over the last five games, according to NBA.com, shooting 44.8 percent from the field as a team (No. 11) and 36.9 percent from deep (No. 5) in that span.
Though Portland's offense has been rolling the last week-and-a-half -- for the most part -- the team's defense deserves a fair amount of credit, as well. In the last five games, the Blazers Rank No. 6 in the league in points allowed per game (94.8), No. 6 in opponents' field goal percentage (42.5 percent) and No. 4 in opponents' three-point shooting percentage (29.8 percent).
Without Matthews, Portland will absorb a significant dent on both ends of the floor, and guard Arron Afflalo will ostensibly be moved into the starting lineup. Afflalo, who's shot 41.2 percent from the field over the course of the team's five-game winning streak, has actually shot better than Matthews from outside over that same stretch (37.5 vs. 34.4 percent, respectively). Afflalo can also replicate or come close to matching many of Matthews' defensive skills.
The problem, then, is that Stotts is back to the drawing board trying to figure out his playing rotation. Sure, the starters should be solid with Afflalo -- a high-usage player for most of his career -- filling Matthews' void, but the reserve rotation is suddenly clouded.
Guard Allen Crabbe has played a minute-and-a-half since the All-Star break, wing CJ McCollum has seen less than five minutes of court-time in two games over the last couple weeks and swingman Alonzo Gee -- brought over in the Afflalo trade -- has briefly appeared in just three games as a Blazer so far.
We can probably surmise that guard Steve Blake, whose time had dipped significantly recently, will go back to playing roughly 15-20 minutes a night instead of the 10-15 he'd been getting since Afflalo joined the team. Otherwise, it's a coin flip figuring out how Stotts handles his backcourt reserves. You could see McCollum, Crabbe, Gee or forward Dorell Wright all pick up a few minutes they weren't getting before now that Matthews' minutes must be filled, but really, it might be more likely that starting point guard Damian Lillard, Afflalo and Blake make up a three-guard rotation that receives the bulk of the minutes while the rest of the reserves are peppered in at the ends and beginnings of quarters so that the starters can get a quick breather.
Lillard, after an extended rough stretch, has bounced back recently and is shooting a reasonable 61.5 percent at the rim during the Blazers' current winning streak and 35.7 percent from deep. That's particularly impressive after his 0-for-7 performance against the Clippers on Wednesday, which bogs down what would be an otherwise-stellar stretch of outside shooting the last couple weeks. Lillard has struggled a bit with turnovers lately and his passing has dipped a bit, but he's been active on the glass, which was never more evident than Wednesday night when he picked up 18 boards (!!!) over Chris Paul and the Clippers.
If the Blazers have won five in a row, and Lillard's offensive production has been solid-but-not-phenomenal in that time, you'd probably expect four-time All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge's numbers to be impressive, right? Well, sure, he's averaged 22.4 points a game the last five, but he's needed as many shots to get there and he's cashing in on only 38.1 percent of his tries. That includes a 61.5 percent clip at the basket and 30.5 percent shooting from the midrange, Aldridge's favorite spot and where over half his offense originates.
Afflalo, forward Nicolas Batum and centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman have all been playing well over Portland's last five games, filling in the gaps where necessary when Lillard, Aldridge or both star players are unable to shoulder the scoring load.
Batum's renaissance since the All-Star break has continued throughout the Blazers' five-game winning streak, the je ne sais quoi that's encapsulated his on-court production for much of his early career eluding him through the first 53 games of the season as he battled fatigue and nagging injuries. But the Batum of old is back, his batteries recharged over the extended break. His shooting has increased to 48.8 percent from the field and 40.7 from outside during Portland's five-game winning streak, and he's been indispensable in the passing game, on the boards and on the defensive end. With Matthews -- his starting counterpart on the wing the last several years -- out for the season, Batum's role in the offense as both a distributor and scorer is increased from here on out.
Lopez and Kaman have platooned the center position for the Blazers quite nicely recently, as they're shooting 61.1 and 58.8 percent from the field the last five games, respectively. Big man Meyers Leonard has been limited to mop-up duty since the All-Star break and will likely be used situationally. Stotts has often ended games with Lillard, Matthews, Afflalo, Batum and Aldridge on the floor together, going somewhat small. Now that Matthews is out, will we see a small lineup featuring Lillard, Afflalo and Batum with Aldridge at center, along with either Wright, Crabbe or Gee on the wing? It's hard to say which route Stotts will take, but there's no doubt he still has options if he wants to go stretches of games with unconventional lineups.
That's not even mentioning big man Joel Freeland, who's been back from injury for a handful of games but still hasn't cracked the frontcourt rotation.
The 'Wolves have been one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA since the All-Star break, particularly struggling on the defensive end. That doesn't bode well for them tonight, as the Blazers have been the best defensive rebounding team in the league the last seven games and can also do damage by grabbing their own misses and creating second-chance scoring opportunities on their own end. Dieng and Pekovic are the most productive Timberwolves on the glass; after those two, Rubio becomes the biggest threat on the boards. Lopez, Aldridge, Kaman and Batum should all be able to get in on the act and gang-rebound against a Minnesota team that usually struggles to corral misses.
Tonight's game allows Stotts and the Blazers a bit of a buffer to try out a playing rotation against the worst team in the Western Conference before heading home for three days of rest and practice, with the Rockets coming to town next Wednesday. Portland can't overlook the 'Wolves tonight, though, as they torched the Blazers on the glass back in mid-December in an ugly, 90-82 win that saw the two teams combine for 38 turnovers while Wiggins poured in 23 points.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter