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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves Preview

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The Portland Trail Blazers look to pick up their eighth win in the last 10 games against the slumping Minnesota Timberwolves.

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Portland Trail Blazers (22-26) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (14-34)
Saturday, December 5
Moda Center | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Pat Connaughton (Doubtful - Ankle) | Minnesota injury report: Zach LaVine (Questionable - Ankle), Kevin Garnett (Doubtful - Knee), Kevin Martin (Doubtful - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: Cannis Hoopus | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers have defied expectations all season, culminating in a hot streak of seven wins over the last nine games. They have unexpectedly risen into playoff contention and hope to continue their on-court success tonight against their mirror image: The Minnesota Timberwolves.

Going into the season, Minnesota was expected to be a dark horse contender for the eight seed in the Western Conference. Fans were optimistic that Andrew Wiggins would continue to improve on his 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year campaign, Karl-Anthony Towns would inherit the top rookie award, and a bevy of veterans would provide leadership and experience. Throw in a healthy Ricky Rubio and the T-Wolves had all the makings of a playoff contender.

The good news for Minnesota is that Wiggins has significantly diversified his offense and now averages more than 20 points per game, Towns has been a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year (come at me Porzingis fans!), Kevin Garnett has been the best thing that's ever happened to his protégé and Rubio has been more or less healthy. Despite those positive signs, however, the T-Wolves are second to last in the Western Conference and have won only two games in 2016.

The Timberwolves have had a multitude of problems, but one of the more interesting has been an inability to play their three talented young wings together effectively. Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Shabazz Muhammad are all athletic and can score in bunches; in a league relying more and more on multi-talented, mid-size players the trio could be a golden ticket for the T-Wolves. The problem is that all three players are ball-dominant scorers who provide little help on defense and it's unclear whether or not two of them can be effectively deployed at the same time. In essence, Minnesota is having the rotation problem with its wings that Portland was expected to have with CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The wing rotation conundrum has manifested as a minutes competition between LaVine and Muhammad. Wiggins is considered a cornerstone of the franchise going forward, so coach Sam Mitchell has been forced to fit the other two around the team's star. Initially, Minnesota tried to make it work by playing LaVine major minutes at point guard, but poor shot selection and questionable playmaking decisions precluded LaVine from running the offense for extended time. Both LaVine and Wiggins weigh less than 200 pounds so it's also less than ideal to play them together at the 2 and 3.

Thus, within the last month, Muhammad has begun to see more minutes. He is a bigger and more physical player than LaVine and can match up with small forwards, allowing Wiggins or LaVine to stay at their natural shooting guard position. But playing Muhammad in front of LaVine has not solved their problems for two reasons: 1) Muhammad is not a good 3-point shooter which harms spacing, especially when paired with Wiggins and/or Rubio, and 2) he's "one of the worst defenders in the NBA."

Interestingly, LaVine may be slowly reclaiming his playing time. After a month of Muhammad leading in playing time, Mitchell has played LaVine more minutes than Muhammad in each of the last three games. How the T-Wolves handle their three young wings, and whether or not they find a way to play all three of them simultaneously, will be an important ongoing subplot.

For more detailed analysis of the LaVine/Muhammad/Wiggins situation check out this article from Canis Hoopus, and this article from the Minneapolis Post.

In addition to the rotation problems, the relationship between Mitchell and his players has reportedly begun to fray:

There is a battle of wills going on in Minnesota between an old-school coach and a roster built around new-school talent. The team's surprising 8-8 start has been followed by a sobering 6-24 stretch that has left some players quietly grumbling about their 52-year-old interim coach.

...[N]early half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles. The players spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize their head coach.

Kevin Garnett, who has known Mitchell since the two were teammates in 1995, was asked about the heavy criticism Mitchell has faced from fans this season before a victory over Memphis last Saturday. He quickly replied: "Next question." Garnett often swipes aside questions he views as negative, but one of Mitchell's close allies passing on a chance to back him didn't help the coach's cause.

To Mitchell's credit he does seem to have a solid development plan for the younger players, as explained in this interview, and several of them have improved individually.

Some of his criticized rotations have also been an attempt to plug unavoidable defensive holes on a team that is No. 23 in defensive rating and No. 25 in opponent field goal percentage. For example, his decision to bench Towns for long stretches of the fourth quarter earlier this season was intended to shore up shoddy pick-and-roll defense down the stretch. That being said, he has also used several inexplicable lineups this season and is slow to adjust when his experiments fail, leading to criticism from the media and fans.

Mitchell also runs an out of date and simplistic offense that is easily scouted and leads to a lot of long two-point field goal attempts. Couple that with poor shot selection from several of the young players and the offense can get downright ugly at times. And then pile on the defensive woes inherent to any young team -  the result has been another abysmal season. After their loss to Utah on Friday, Canis Hoopus summed up it all up, writing that the Timberwolves are "more or less a crap basketball team."

But here's the thing: Much like the 76ers, the Timberwolves' front office is probably okay with underachievement. Their very young core is slowly looking better, and the veterans have prevented any of the off-court problems seen in Philadelphia. The team website is literally comparing their ongoing struggles to the growing pains of the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder. And, in the end, if the Timberwolves do slide far enough to grab another blue chip prospect in the draft to play alongside Towns and Wiggins, the struggles of 2016 could be a distant memory by 2020.

Tonight's game will be the third of four meetings between the Timberwolves and Blazers this season. On Dec. 5 the Blazers rallied from a 17-point second half deficit to beat the Timberwolves 109-103. Portland was led by Lillard with 19 points, while Towns paced the Timberwolves with 27 points and 12 rebounds.

The Blazers also beat the T-Wolves 106-101 on Nov. 2. A video honoring the late Flip Saunders played before the game; Minnesota players admitted they were emotionally drained after the tribute. Lillard led all scorers with 34 points, and Kevin Martin scored 24 points off the bench for Minnesota.

Keys to the game

Keep Towns under control: Towns has been on a tear lately, averaging 23.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists on 68.5 percent shooting over the last five games. The Blazers will need a repeat performance of their defensive effort earlier this week against DeMarcus Cousins if they hope to slow Towns down.

Keep Minnesota off the foul line: Minnesota does a lot of damage at the foul line, averaging the third most free throw attempts (26.5) and most free throw makes in the league (21.0) per game. Wiggins leads the way with 7.2 attempts per contest. The Blazers, on the other hand, give up the most free throw attempts per game (26.3). If Portland can stop Minnesota from getting to the line with solid interior defense it will take away Minnesota's primary means of offense.

Get off to a hot start: Minnesota outscores its opponents by an average of 0.6 points in the first quarter, but has one of the worst point differentials in the league in the second and third quarter. If the Blazers can avoid an early deficit, coach Terry Stotts should be able to make enough adjustments later in the game to pull out a victory.

Notes:

Timberwolves color commentator Jim Petersen is arguably the best in the business. With all due respect to Mike and Mike, he's well worth a listen.

Minnesota will be well represented at All-Star weekend: Wiggins, LaVine, and Towns have all been invited to the Rising Stars Challenge. Towns will also be the first big man to participate in the Skills Challenge. LaVine won the slam dunk contest last season and is expected to defend his title this year.

The Blazers lead the all-time series against the Timberwolves 74-29

The Timberwolves are the rare team this year with a better record on the road (7-16) than at home (7-18).

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