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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves: Threes Aren't Enough to Lift Blazers

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The Blazers shot 52% from the three-point arc and still lost? Something ain't right.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers entered the post-Wesley-Matthews stretch of the 2014-15 season with a relatively easy test versus the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight. In 60 games played, the 'Wolves had won only 13 before this evening. This was a test run, a chance to get comfortable and try various schemes to replace Matthews before the schedule gets serious again.

As it turned out, the schedule got serious tonight. The Blazers hit 14-27 three-pointers--an astonishing 52% rate--but couldn't do anything else right. The 'Wolves outrebounded, outran, outmuscled, and (incredibly) outshot the Blazers to earn their 14th victory of the year, 121-113.

Game Flow

As suspected, Arron Afflalo started tonight in place of Matthews. This wasn't Coach Stotts' only solution to the replacement riddle, just the first and most sustained. As it turned out, the Blazers would end up with a kitchen sink approach to their shooting guard problem. Of the 10 possibilities listed in this exhaustive article, the only 3 they didn't employ were signing Ray Allen and playing Allen Crabbe or Meyers Leonard at the two. In other words, all 7 of the 7 most likely solutions got run. Whether they worked was open to interpretation, but you can't fault Coach Stotts for trying.

The first period of the game went well for Portland offensively. Afflalo and Nicolas Batum proved effective from the perimeter, keeping Minnesota's defense spread across the floor. This allowed LaMarcus Aldridge space to shoot and Damian Lillard room to drive. That's a solid recipe and Portland's offense clicked.

The second quarter went almost as well, with Lillard and Dorell Wright joining the perimeter parade. The Blazers parlayed threes into dunks off of Minnesota defenders who dared not sag off.

30 points in the opening quarter and 55 at the half spoke well of Portland's marksmanship and ability to cope without Wes.

But outside of some brilliant first-quarter help defense from Robin Lopez, you've just read the entire list of Things That Went Right for Portland in the half. Everything else they ceded to the opponent. Minnesota's bigs racked up second-chance points against shoddy rebounding. Minnesota drivers found the paint again and again for scores or easy dishes to jump shooters. The 'Wolves aren't a dominant paint scoring team and they're all but rotten from the outside. As Portland's offense got Hippie-Dad-level permissive, Minnesota built dangerous confidence.

The second quarter brought a ray of hope as the Blazers contained the 'Wolves to 22 points, but the score still read 55-51 at the half. The numbers themselves weren't as ominous as the way Minnesota had been dominating every category but three-point shooting. Stroking the deep shot and running the offense as well as they were, the Blazers should have been up 20, not 4.

Halftime horripilation turned to full-on fear in the third quarter as Target Center became a haunted house for the visitors. Converting turnovers into easy points allowed Minnesota to break the dam against an already-strained Portland defense. A 10-point period from Damian Lillard helped bail out the Blazers but allowing the Timberwolves 30 left Portland trailing 81-77 entering the fourth.

In the final period we got to see a reserve shooting guard step up and dominate, turning the game with his offensive brilliance. Unfortunately for the Blazers that guard was not Arron Afflalo, but Gary Neal. Neal would rattle off 11 straight points in the middle of the fourth on his way to 17 in the quarter.

17. Yes, 17. In one quarter. For Gary Neal.

Who thought that was a good idea?

But it wasn't just Neal. Portland's guards got creamed by everyone the matched up against. The Blazers tried Lillard-Afflalo, Lillard-Blake, and Blake-Afflalo combinations. They tried defending the middle with super-sized Robin Lopez, mobile Dorell Wright, and everyone in between. No matter who the Blazers put out there, Minnesota's offense was like a fork stabbing through salad. Really porous salad. With floppy raisins.

The Timberwolves ended up scoring 40 points in the final period. That number was inflated by a foul-for-possession fest at the end of the game, but still...

The only time "40" and "a quarter" get mentioned in the same sentence in Minnesota is Cheap Malt Liquor promo night. Both the Blazers and their fans could have used that after this one.

This was one of those games where the fan part of you hopes they'll pull out the win but the basketball purist side says it wouldn't be fair, could encourage bad habits, and might insult the basketball gods. No worries there. As it turned out, the purist side prevailed and Portland lost 121-113.

Analysis

For reference, Minnesota averages 98 points per game. They scored 121 tonight.

Want more perspective?

The Timberwolves average 43.3% shooting for the year. Tonight they shot 54.1%.

The Timberwolves average 32.9% from the arc. Tonight they shot 57.1%.

Need more? Here's a table of Minnesota guards and small forwards with their season shooting and scoring averages compared to their performance in this game. For your convenience, numbers higher than average are in bold text.

Season%

Tonight%

Season Scoring

Tonight Scoring

Kevin Martin

44.0%

52.4%

20.0

29

Ricky Rubio

36.4%

41.7%

11.4

13

Andrew Wiggins

43.7%

53.3%

15.9

18

Gary Neal

39.3%

72.7%

11.7

27

Zach LaVine

41.8%

50.0%

7.5

8

(I didn't have the heart to bold LaVine's .5 point excess.)

If you're counting, that's 95 points scored from 3 positions. Or, put another way, the 'Wolves might as well have played 2 Michael Jordans and a peak-production Steve Nash at their small positions. That's what Portland's defense made them produce like.

Any questions why the Blazers lost?

The bigger question, of course, is how the Matthews Replacement Brigade fared. Afflalo seemed comfortable on offense but his attack isn't what we're used to seeing at shooting guard. When not three-point shooting, he looked out of place. Steve Blake saw time at shooting guard but the Lillard-Blake combo was a disaster defensively. CJ McCollum played 18 ineffective minutes.

As far as indirect ripple effect, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright looked decent on offense but struggled on the other end. Batum going flat on "D" was disappointing, as the Blazers need him to pick up for Matthews. Once again Alonzo Gee seemed like the best defensive option off the bench, but the Blazers sacrifice scoring to play him.

In short, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink left the Blazers needing to sort out the junk drawer to see if they can actually use some of this stuff.

This was just one game, however. We'll need a couple more weeks to pass any kind of firm judgment. The start didn't look good, but who knows?

Individual Notes

Arron Afflalo shot 5-12, 3-5 from distance and scored 14 in his first start as a Trail Blazer. Those are actually Matthews-esque numbers. His problems all came on the other end where lack of continuity led to 6 personal fouls and confusing rotations.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points tonight but 8 of them came off of "cheat" layups in the final minute of the game as Minnesota let the Blazers score. 32 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds is a monster line but Ricky Rubio had 15 assists and 8 rebounds plus no defensive combination that included Lillard turned out to be much good.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 points on 10-20 shooting with 8 rebounds. This was one of those games where he seemed to be looking around saying, "What the heck are we doing?" With Minnesota's bigs going Jesse Ventura on Portland's centers and Minnesota's smalls flipping points like the Shawn Michaels and Marty Janetty, Aldridge might as well have been stuck on the apron with his hand bound to the tag rope.

Robin Lopez played hard and managed 3 blocks out of rotations but Nikola Pekovic ate him up with bulk and Minnesota's smaller center options moved him around too much. Even though Lopez was in the right place most of the time it felt like he was in no-man's-land all night.

Like Lillard, Nicolas Batum had an impressive line of 7-12 shooting, 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. To his credit, he was one of the few wings getting back for transition defense. But the rest of his defense was lackluster. First the Blazers need to build some continuity with this new lineup. Then Batum has to take the bull by the horns and become a difference-maker every night on defense. Otherwise this isn't going to work. The team can't afford Nic being just one of the crowd anymore.

Speaking of...I've figured out that Chris Kaman must be Lane Defense's secret identity. You never see both of them in the same place at the same time.

Dorell Wright hit a couple of threes and Steve Blake had 5 assists in 13 minutes. CJ McCollum shot 1-5 and looked lost.

The Blazers have a bunch of days to practice before they meet the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. If this game was any indication, they'll need it.

Boxscore

Our Instant Recap will give you reaction from around the web.

Canis Hoopus may tell you that this was the best of Minnesota's 14 wins this year.

Got a question or comment about this week's developments? Call 234-738-3394 and leave a voicemail for our podcast!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge