Heading into their Saturday night matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Portland Trail Blazers held playoff destiny in their own hands. A victory over the 27-win 'Wolves would be their penultimate step to claiming the 5th seed in the Western Conference bracket. After a season better than anybody predicted, the Blazers set to finish in style, staking sole claim to the title, "Best of the Rest in the West".
The Timberwolves had other ideas.
Like a horror-movie villain rising up out of a murky lake, Minnesota grabbed the Blazers from behind...rebounding, defending, and Karl-Anthony Townsing them into submission. Just when they thought they'd escaped into clear air and sunshine, a 106-105 home loss dragged the Blazers back into the muddled swamp of non-contenders, their playoff position again in doubt, reasons for playoff optimism evaporating.
This game started out like nobody wanted to win it. Both teams missed their early buckets. After blowing off the rust, the Blazers bullied the Timberwolves, rebounding well and setting up Damian Lillard in the lane. Minnesota switched everything; Lillard scored repeatedly by dribbling past bigger defenders. Portland led 28-21 after the first.
Then Karl-Anthony Towns entered the building like a hurricane. Towns hadn't scored a point in the first period. He had 9 by halftime. Plus he played stout defense to anchor the 'Wolves in their best quarter of the night. Portland's second-unit defense flopped like a trout on the pier.
No...it spun in circles like a tuna in a trawling net.
No...it floated belly-up like a goldfish taking the porcelain highway.
You get the idea.
Lacking size, the Blazers couldn't defend any Timberwolves players in the post. Minnesota dominated the boards and kept the Blazers out of the paint. Portland spent the quarter taking 20-foot shots; the ball spent the quarter traveling only 19. The 'Wolves posted a 32-21 advantage and owned a 53-49 lead at the half.
Both teams played tough defense in the third. Towns showed no signs of slowing and Andrew Wiggins came alive on his way to a 23-point evening, but Wiggins had to work for his points and Portland did a good job limiting the supporting cast. Minnesota returned the favor on the other end, pounding with big bodies and getting hands in the passing lanes. The Blazers ended up playing more one-on-one than is their wont. The only time they scored easily was on the break, but those opportunities came too seldom. Ceding them right back to Minnesota via turnovers didn't help. The 'Wolves led 75-72 after three.
Had this game followed form, Portland would have put on a big scoring streak in the mid-fourth quarter and held on for the predictable, if somewhat too-close-for-comfort, victory. The run never materialized. The Blazers scored inside at the beginning of the period but Minnesota put a stop to that by returning their big lineup to the floor. Portland's outside shooters were too shaky to make them pay. The Blazers never got control of the boards to start run-outs. In short, Portland's speed and accuracy advantages went to waste while their size disadvantage told.
As has been typical this season, the Blazers went away from their game when they got pressured. Screens all but evaporated from the offense. Eventually Portland's possessions devolved into guards dribbling, then bailing out to non-scorers in iso situations. Meanwhile the Blazers allowed Minnesota to pass and cut comparatively freely on defense. Turnovers continued. Had the Timberwolves been an accomplished team they would have mopped the floor with the Blazers in the fourth. As it was, they still kept the game in hand...their defensive and rebounding acumen on display.
Even with all that, the Blazers still managed to keep the score close. Minnesota's guards aren't exactly sharpshooters and they're mistake-prone. Despite Minnesota's knotting defense, the Blazers found themselves within 3 with the ball and 41 seconds remaining. At that point the nadir of their evening arrived: a 5-second violation on an inbounds play. Fortunately they made it up as Lillard drew an offensive foul on Wiggins on the very next possession. After the Blazers called timeout, Lillard scored on a layup with 22 seconds remaining. Down only 1, Lillard fouled Zach LaVine. LaVine made both foul shots, leaving his team up 104-101, 7 seconds left in regulation.
Portland called their last timeout to set up a crossing play between Lillard and CJ McCollum above the three-point arc. With 3 seconds remaining Ricky Rubio took the intentional foul that his coach no doubt drew up in the huddle, a ploy to send the Blazers to the foul line with a maximum reward of 2 points. The problem was, Rubio took it late and out of position, while Lillard was drifting away from him. As soon as he felt contact, Damian rose for a three. The echo of the ref's whistle still hung in the air as the ball found sweet, sweet twine. The most improbable ending possible was about to occur. Lillard sank a free throw to complete a four-point play, giving the Blazers a 105-104 lead with 3 seconds remaining. In a charmed year, a miracle finish would secure them a game that their play couldn't capture on its own.
Except that didn't happen. As Minnesota inbounded the ball, they sent everybody running up above the key. Portland's defenders followed, naturally. That's when Towns backed an overmatched Al-Farouq Aminu into the post. Towns was 7'0 tall, 250 pounds, and extremely skilled on offense. Aminu might as well have been standing there in his underwear rehearsing a recurring nightmare. Towns caught, pivoted Aminu onto his hip, and hit an easy 3-footer. Portland had no timeouts and the length of the floor to go with 1.8 seconds remaining. They got the ball to Lillard but his three-quarter-court shot went well astray. Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell threw his hands in the air as the final horn sounded, his game-finishing play a success and his team proud owners of the 1-point win.
Plenty will be made of Minnesota's last bucket. Aminu was pretty much the biggest player the Blazers fielded on that defensive set. He's a good defender but at 6'9", 215 he was nowhere near a match for Towns.
The Blazers were playing the odds, not the matchup. Up by only a point, they couldn't risk an opponent getting free by running a big defender into a screen. Nor could they risk a foul if a slow defender got behind the play. They needed interchangeable players to cover every part of the court, switching against screens with impunity.
Portland got exactly what they wanted. Every Minnesota player had a defender draped over him on the inbounds and the Blazers could have dealt with any pick thrown against them. Brilliantly, Minnesota didn't use a pick. Towns backed down Aminu, wearing him like an old jacket. Anyone who could have helped double-team was out near the three-point arc where Minnesota's smaller players were gathered as decoys. You could almost hear the swear words flying as inbounder Tayshaun Prince pivoted and threw the ball in Towns' direction. The play was simple, the results devastating.
In context (and with the benefit of hindsight) it's fair to say that leaving the opposing team's leading scorer single-covered by a player who had no prayer of stopping him was a mistake. But Minnesota is prone to call on Andrew Wiggins in these situations...banking on guards and small forwards as most teams do nowadays. When Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon roamed the court, everybody in the universe would have been prepared to deal with an entry pass to a posting center. Those players don't exist anymore. In an era when 7-footers are good for offensive rebounds and bricking 1-foot shots, Towns is one of a small handful of players who could make that play work. The Blazers opted for a standard last-possession defense instead of a Towns-specific one. They paid.
That play decided the game on video, but Portland had trouble well before that. Most opponents have to choose between fielding players big enough to match the Blazers on the boards and fielding players who can guard the three-point arc. The 'Wolves managed both tonight. Minnesota won the offensive rebounding battle 13-11, tied the Blazers for 37 overall rebounds, and held Portland to 37.5% three-point shooting. The latter number is right on Portland's average, but the Blazers often go nuts at the arc when opponents go big. 9-24 isn't exactly nuts.
Forcing Portland into 17 turnovers was also huge. The Blazers looked discombobulated. That may be the bigger story. All game long it felt like Mitchell and the Timberwolves had their sights exactly on Portland's strengths and weaknesses. The Blazers returned the favor, but impacted the 'Wolves less than the 'Wolves impacted them. This resurrects latent worries about a post-season series where the opponent will have nothing to think about but Portland. The Blazers look great when they play free and easy. When the other team knows their moves, they don't look like the same team. This is true of every team in the abstract, but Portland seems particularly susceptible.
The real stars of this game were Towns and Wiggins in the second half, plus Ricky Rubio all game long for disrupting the passing lanes and diving on the floor for loose balls.
Damian Lillard was Portland's main man, scoring 31 points on 11-22 shooting, fouling up Minnesota's defense with his dribble-drives. The late-game four-point play was huge too. Classic Dame.
CJ McCollum equaled Lillard with 7 assists, adding 21 points on 6-13 shooting. He never got rolling offensively and he suffered on the other end against bigger players.
Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu did their best to keep the 'Wolves at bay. Both were beneficiaries of Minnesota paying attention to Portland's guards. Plumlee scored 15 on 6-9 shooting, adding 15 rebounds and 2 blocks. Aminu scored 10 on 4-8 shooting.
With the Timberwolves running a Towns-Gorgui Dieng-Nemanja Bjelica frontcourt battery (all 6'10" or taller), Moe Harkless had nowhere to play. He shot 2-7 for 5 points and 3 rebounds in 31 minutes.
Portland's bench got steamrolled tonight. Allen Crabbe scored 9 on 4-7 shooting...a total which surprised me because I didn't think the reserve wings hit 4 shots, period. Ed Davis grabbed 7 rebounds in 16 minutes.
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Canis Hoopus will love this one.
The Blazers will play their season finale against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night in a 7:30 p.m. Pacific start.