(50-27, No. 4 in the West)
Wednesday, April 8
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Shabazz Muhammad, Gary Neal, Anthony Bennett, Gorgui Dieng (day-to-day), Kevin Garnett (questionable)
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The Blazers head home tonight to host the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half of the team's final back-to-back set of game this year.
The 'Wolves will be without guards Gary Neal, Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad, forwards Anthony Bennett and Kevin Garnett and centers Nikola Pekovic and (potentially) Gorgeui Dieng. Guard Kevin Martin just returned from injury a couple games ago. Former D-Leaguers Justin Hamilton (center) Arinze Onuaku (forward) and Lorenzo Brown (point guard) are all sizable pieces in coach Flip Saunders' rotation. Guard Zach LaVine and forward Andrew Wiggins have each averaged about 42 minutes a game the last seven -- all losses for Minnesota.
Timberwolves fans, at this point in another season devoted to player development, are possibly most invested in seeing their team lose games so as to maximize the odds at gaining a top pick in this Summer's NBA Draft. And yet, a road game on the second night of a back-to-back after the team's seventh straight loss against the playoff-bound Blazers who just rested three key players this week may not seem like such a sure defeat -- Portland accounts for 12.5 percent of the 'Wolves 16 wins this season, after all.
The Blazers have dropped two straight games to Minnesota. The first unlikely victory was a mid-December shocker in Portland that snapped a six-game losing streak for the 'Wolves and was proceeded by 15 more consecutive losses. Three months later, the Blazers broke a four-game losing streak by Minnesota and handed the team its only win of an 11-game stretch that spanned the first three weeks of March.
The last time these two teams met, the 'Wolves wings sliced and diced Portland on their way to 121 points on the night. Three months prior, Minnesota won by limiting Aldridge to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting, guard Damian Lillard to 23 points on 24 attempts and by holding the Blazers to 10-of-35 shooting from deep.
By all accounts, both of these tough losses seem a bit flukey -- each was essentially book-ended by multiple-game win streaks for Portland -- and the Blazers have more proven talent on their roster. Regardless, they haven't fared well against the 'Wolves lately.
Portland's coming off a loss to Brooklyn on Monday, though Aldridge, forward Nicolas Batum and center Chris Kaman all missed the trip. The team's offense has generally been efficient lately, converting 47.7 percent of its field goals (No. 8 in the NBA) the last five games and 43.3 percent of its threes (No. 4). The ball movement has suffered a bit, but the Blazers aren't turning the ball over much and put plenty of points on the board.
Lillard has scored 22.4 points per game the last five, converting 48.9 percent of his shots and 44.1 percent of his field goals in that time. In three games against Minnesota this year, the third-year Weber State product has averaged 24 points per outing but has done so shooting 42.6 percent from the floor and 25.9 percent from outside. With Rubio on the shelf, Lillard should have an easier time against the inexperienced point guard duo of LaVine and Brown.
Aldridge, like Lillard, hasn't had his best games against the Timberwolves this year. Still, power forward Adreian Payne, Hamilton and Onuaku don't exactly form an imposing frontcourt. After resting on Monday and not playing since Saturday, expect Aldridge to have a much more efficient night against the 'Wolves than he has recently.
Batum had a quiet outing against the Pelicans before taking Monday off, but he's otherwise hit 55 percent of his threes the last five games. Wiggins is Minnesota's best player on both offense and defense, and forwards Robbie Hummel and Chase Budinger, along with Martin, form a decent wing corps. Guards Arron Afflalo and CJ McCollum join Batum in Portland coach Terry Stotts' wing rotation.
Wiggins sometimes settles for midrange jumpshots, but he is adept at attacking the rim and has averaged 23.4 points per game for Minnesota the last seven games. In his last two games against the Blazers, he's averaged 20.5 points on 54.8 percent shooting. Budinger has been lights-out from deep lately, but Hummel is mostly a wash offensively. Martin dropped 29 points on Portland last month and poured in 37 last night against the Kings and will likely pose a problem for the Blazers tonight. Afflalo has shot well from outside lately but has looked underwhelming when his three-pointers aren't falling. McCollum has put in work on the wings the last few weeks and has become a solid bench scoring option for Stotts, creating his own shots off the dribble and sinking 46.7 percent of his threes the last five games.
Center Robin Lopez is due for a bounce-back game after his twin brother Brook out-performed him in every way on Monday. Lopez' field goal percentage has dipped to 48.6 percent the last five games, but he'll be facing an inexperienced 'Wolves frontcourt that struggles to slow most teams. Kaman should also be primed for a big night, as he'll rejoin McCollum as Portland's main reserve scorers with everyone who's healthy back in uniform and available.
Don't be surprised to see LaVine have a big impact on the game tonight -- with all of the injuries to the Timberwolves lately, he's seen big minutes and gets up a ton of shots. He is still far from efficient on a consistent basis and struggles with turnovers, but his big-play potential is always lurking.
Minnesota has been the worst rebounding team in the league over the course of its seven-game losing streak, and the Blazers have been among the league-leaders in rebound percentage in that time. Not one Timberwolf has averaged more than Payne's six rebounds per game the last seven, and none poses a real threat on the offensive boards. Aldridge, Kaman, Lopez and bigs Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland should, all things considered, be able to handle the 'Wolves on the glass.
Don't forget, however, that Minnesota hauled in 20 offensive boards against Portland in December and has averaged 48 to the Blazers' 42.7 rebounds in their three meetings this season. Again, this could be a fluke, but Portland has been out-performed on the glass somewhat handily by the Timberwolves this year.
The Blazers' defense has been pretty average lately, and they've struggled to keep a seal on the perimeter. Fortunately for Portland, the 'Wolves rarely attack from outside and are horrible at converting when they do. Though Martin and Wiggins will almost definitely do plenty of damage from the wings, Minnesota lacks the talent -- on paper -- to keep up with the Blazers.
Don't be surprised to see Portland snap their two-game losing streak against Minnesota and dispatch the Timberwolves in convincing fashion tonight, as they look to head into the postseason with some momentum, while the 'Wolves just hope to mercifully end the season with enough healthy players on their roster to field a full lineup.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter