Portland Trail Blazers (43-37) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (27-52)
Saturday, April 9
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | Minnesota injury report: Nikola Pekovic (Out - Achilles) Kevin Garnett (Out - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: Cannis Hoopus
The Portland Trail Blazers control their own destiny. Win their remaining two games and they can guarantee the fifth seed in the Western Conference and a date with the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Lose a game and they can fall as far as seventh and draw the San Antonio Spurs. (Full details of various playoff scenarios can be found here.) The Minnesota Timberwolves will be the first team to try and knock the Blazers off track this evening when the teams square off in the Moda Center at 7:30.
Tonight's matchup will be the fourth and final meeting between the division rivals this year; the Blazers won the first three games and will be going for the sweep.
Despite the fact that Minnesota has only 27 wins on the season, and the Blazers won the first three games of the season series, it would be a mistake to assume tonight's contest will be a cakewalk. The Timberwolves played the Blazers tough in the previous three meetings - the largest Blazer margin of victory was six on Dec. 5 in Minnesota. After a close game on Nov. 3 Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge noted that the Timberwolves have the talent to be competitive with the Blazers:
The first two games this week were interesting because Minnesota and the Utah Jazz bookend the Blazers, Minnesota being slightly below Portland and Utah being slightly above, both providing marks of reference. I'd hoped to see the Blazers look a little better than they did tonight, but I also may be more impressed with the Timberwolves than I used to be. They may have a future.
To make matters even more difficult for the Blazers, the Timberwolves are not resting players over the final games of the season. Portland will be competing with the Timberwolves' A-unit headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Towns, especially, has impressed NBA experts by winning every Western Conference Rookie of the Month award while averaging 18.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He has already established himself as an All-Star in waiting and may challenge DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis for the "best center in the NBA' title.
The Towns-led Timberwolves confirmed that they have the talent to hang with any team in the NBA on Tuesday when they beat the Golden State Warriors 124-117 in overtime. Shabazz Muhammad led Minnesota with 35 points, while Wiggins scored 32, and Towns added 20 points and 12 rebounds. Interestingly, Muhammad and Wiggins have been at the center of a roster controversy for much of the season - Tuesday's game showed that it may be possible for Minnesota to keep both players going forward.
The overall message from the victory over the Warriors was clear: This team is hungry to play spoiler as the NBA season winds to its conclusion. To avoid that, the Blazers will, as always, need strong performances from their lead guards CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Additionally, they will rely on continued strong play from forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless.
Aminu, after struggling for much of the season, has shot 47.5 percent from three over the last seven games and averaged 16.1 points per game. With Meyers Leonard out of the lineup, several teams have begun to punish the Blazers defensively by ignoring the historically-poor outside shooting Aminu entirely on the perimeter to pack the lane against Lillard and McCollum drives. Aminu's effectiveness as an outside shooter is a huge boon for Portland's offense.
Harkless has also emerged as a key player for the Blazers in recent weeks. Since being moved to the starting lineup nine games ago, Harkless has averaged 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds on 50.5 percent shooting from the field. As Evans Clinchy explained for Blazer's Edge last week, Harkless' length, athleticism and versatility have also added a new dimension to the Blazers' defense.
Keys to the game
Hit five more 3-pointers than the T-Wolves: The Timberwolves are the fourth-worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA at 33.6 percent - Lillard and McCollum are averaging the same number of threes per game as the entire Timberwolves roster. If the Blazers can run their offense as well and create some open 3-pointers, it is unlikely that Minnesota will be able to retaliate. By the same token, the Blazers should be able to mostly ignore the perimeter to pack the paint and challenge Towns and Wiggins at the basket.
Who's going to guard Towns?: Towns is a bad matchup for the Blazers. Portland has given up 19.7 points and 10 rebounds on 56 percent shooting to the rookie in three games this season, despite the fact that Towns played only 25 minutes in one of the matchups between the teams. With Leonard injured, the Blazers have no big-bodied players who can defensively match Towns' size. For a team that has struggled to contain centers all season, this matchup will be a problem.
Offensive rebounds: The Blazers are No. 5 in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, while the Timberwolves are No. 24 in defensive rebounding. Portland should be able to get some offensive rebounds and generate second chance points tonight.
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