Some NBA games are fine-dining masterpieces, five-star affairs you never forget. Others tend towards strip-mall buffets where you're lucky to find a single palatable dish amid the sea of heat-lamp scorched awfulness. Tonight's contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves was neither sublime nor awful. It was the 11 p.m. stop at Denny's on an over-long drive...not the Thomas-Builds-a-Fire, Grand-Slam-Breakfast Denny's, but the kind where the hamburger was pretty decent and it'll keep you from starving on the way to the real destination. Good enough, providing you're a Trail Blazers fan, of course. After playing the Blazers well for the third straight game and coming up short, 93-90, Timberwolves fans probably got a nasty case of indigestion from their late-night stop. Both teams are stocked with promising young talent, but Portland has their act together just a little bit more and it showed. Again.
Portland's collective poise didn't show up much in the first period, however. The opening 12 minutes provided an extended symphony of sloppy play and turnovers. The Timberwolves out-hustled the Blazers, rebounded better, and defended Portland's talented guards to a standstill. With CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combining for just 7 points under the watchful eyes of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Tayshaun Prince, Portland only managed 21 points in the frame.
Fortunately for Portland, Minnesota plays offense like a dog humping someone's leg. They're energetic, occasionally explosive, but nothing good is going to come of it and nobody really wants to watch that kind of thing anyway. The Blazers had trouble keeping up with Minnesota's athletes...perhaps a sign that Portland wasn't into the game much. In response the T-Wolves mustered a couple of layups and a parade to the foul line (where they'd shoot 68% for the night). Woot. Heavy on the period. Squandering their big opportunity to jet ahead, the 'Wolves had to settle for a 21-all tie after one.
The Blazers' frustration continued in the second quarter, courtesy of three-point shooting gone astray. Portland shot 0-for-the-arc until Meyers Leonard broke the streak with 3:50 remaining in the first half. They'd hit only 2 triples before intermission. They still managed 27 points in the period because, much like Charlotte on Friday night, the Timberwolves couldn't keep their starters in forever. As soon as McCollum saw bench players checking in, his eyes lit up and he was on his way to an 8-point quarter.
Meanwhile the guy whose slacks the 'Wolves were defiling must have beat them with a newspaper because they scored only 18 in the second, almost all of them off of offensive rebounds...the only kind of offense that wasn't cringe-worthy. Portland led 48-39 at the break.
To Minnesota's credit, they turned up the heat in the third period, closing on shooters religiously and effectively, forcing the Blazers to score in isolation off the dribble. McCollum continued to prosper in that kind of offense. If his grimacing and tender stepping were any indication, Lillard was hampered by a return of his chronic foot issues. Nobody else had any idea what to do with the ball outside of their comfort zone. The 'Wolves defended the Blazers into just 15 points. On the other end Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns showed why they're going to be consecutive Rookies of the Year. After being down big at halftime, the 'Wolves led 65-63 going into the final quarter.
Once again, though, Minnesota's bench fell short. Zach Lavine scored 9 in the final period to stake his team to 28 points but he couldn't defend well enough to make it stick. Nor could the aging Andre Miller, the notably quiet Shabazz Muhammad, or anyone else the 'Wolves threw out there. Ed Davis made 4 free throws and Gerald Henderson a pair of long jumpers to start the scoring, which shows you how Minnesota's luck was running. Then Al-Farouq Aminu decided the Blazers weren't losing this game and picked up the action on both ends, hitting a three and getting up into everybody's business. Wiggins and Towns kept their team afloat, setting up Ricky Rubio for some truly heroic last-minute jumpers. But McCollum and Lillard calmly stroked their intentional foul free throws and the clock ran out on the Timberwolves' last-ditch comeback.
The Blazers won this game because CJ McCollum can't be stopped for an entire evening, because Damian Lillard can hit his foul shots, because Al-Farouq Aminu is a mensch, and because Minnesota's bench is erratic and this was one of their down nights. Portland could well have lost for a number of reasons: rebounding, inattention, Lillard's limping. But the enduring lesson (aside from Portland being able to manufacture wins out of these kinds of games nowadays) is that the Blazers are still vulnerable when opponents have good enough defenders to keep Lillard and McCollum in front of them while closing out on shooters. Portland's a whole different team without the backcourt bonanza and the three-point game. No amount of Plumlee passing, Vonleh rebounding, or Henderson mid-range shooting will save them.
The 'Wolves had the Blazers dead to rights--they have all three times the teams have matched up this year--but they didn't have enough punching power to score the knockout. Portland's win wasn't comfortable, but it still counts the same.
CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and Allen Crabbe were the only dialed-in Blazers tonight. McCollum shot 9-19 for 21 points, Leonard 5-11 for 13, Crabbe 4-7 for 8. It's a mark of how this game went that the three combined for 10 of Portland's 13 turnovers and 15 of Portlands' 21 personal fouls. They might have been dialed in but the reception was, like, 2 bars tops.
Al-Farouq Aminu knows when it's business time and he meant business in the second half tonight. His stat line of 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks with 2-6 shooting looks (and is) pedestrian, but Aminu is that guy who starts telling funny stories when the party is bombing. He turns disaster into a reasonably good time.
Mason Plumlee didn't know what to do with Karl-Anthony Towns tonight. That affliction is running through the league like flu this year, but it continues the trend of Plumlee not looking good at all when the opponent is as quick as he and bigger or stronger.
Ed Davis went 6-7 from the foul line. Wow.
Gerald Henderson was the best looking veteran guard on the floor tonight.
Damian Lillard looked only halfway into the action. Something was bothering him. Let's hope that doesn't continue.
Links and Such
Canis Hoopus will be grinding teeth tonight. Be careful.
Portland's homestand continues as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.
We are sending 2000 underprivileged kids to the March 28th Trail Blazers-Kings game! Time is running short. We have only a couple weeks left to reach that goal. PLEASE celebrate tonight's win by providing tickets to those kids so they can get the same great experience we do. It's easy! Just donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
We're counting on you, Blazers fans!