Tonight’s contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center was not pretty. But the Blazers, losers of 11 of their last 13 before this game, can’t argue with the results: A 95-89 victory.
On a night where the teams combined to shoot 13-for-45 (29 percent) on 3-pointers and 29-for-46 on free throws (63 percent), a career-high 43 points from CJ McCollum propelled the Blazers to victory.
“Our guys did a great job of setting screens and I got to my spots in the mid-range game... and then once I get hot, I am tough to guard,” said McCollum in a post-game interview with CSN NW’s Brooke Olzendam.
McCollum’s biggest bucket of the night came when he drilled a 30-foot jumper over Kris Dunn to give the Blazers an 88-82 lead with 2:37 left in the game.
From there, Portland defenders Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner worked together to force Timberwolves Guard Andrew Wiggins into multiple turnovers in the final two minutes to ice the 6-point win.
McCollum’s deep triple capped an impressive second half in which the Blazers guard scored 28 of his 43 points, and Portland outscored Minnesota 58-40. The third quarter, especially, swung the game in Portland’s favor as the Blazers scored 32 points on 14-for-22 shooting while the Timberwolves managed only 15 points on 5-for-21 shooting. The result: The Blazers turned a 49-37 halftime deficit into a 69-64 lead heading into the fourth.
The Blazers did most of their damage early in the third quarter by opening the period on a 22-6 run to take a 61-55 lead with 3:33 to go in the quarter. True to his form for the night, McCollum highlighted the run with an offensive rebound and lay-up on a missed free throw to convert a four-point play the hard way:
“I shortarmed it, I knew it was coming short but they didn’t react to it,” said McCollum. “Once I got it I knew the big fella was coming to try to glass me on the left side, so I reversed it to the right.”
McCollum’s rebound and bucket symbolized the dramatic swing in game flow that occurred in the second half. After taking a 28-25 lead with 9:56 to go in the second, lazy rebounding and transition defense from the Blazers led to a 24-7 run for the Timberwolves, who ended up with a 26-13 advantage in the quarter.
Indeed, the stats split by half tell the story of tonight’s game: in the first half the Timberwolves led 24-12 in points in the paint, 24-16 on rebounds, 8-2 on fast-break points, and out-shot the Blazers 49 percent to 38 percent.
But in the second half the Blazers flipped the script with the following advantages: 24-10 for points in the paint, 25-23 on rebounds, 10 more free throw attempts, and 61 to 33 percent shooting advantage.
“We were playing soft. We were looking for calls from the refs, so we had to play stronger, dig down, stay in our shell, and make sure we got easy baskets in transition,” said McCollum.
Much of the Timberwolves’ struggles to score in the second half resulted from the Blazers’ continued revitalization on defense. With Minnesota shooting only 40 percent tonight, the Blazers have now held three of their last four opponents below 43 percent from the field and to 95 or fewer points. After starting the season dead last in defensive rating, the Blazers have been no. 2 in the league over the last four games, holding opponents to 97.8 points per 100 possessions.
The Blazers success tonight centered on stifling the production of Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins - Minnesota’s three 20+ point per game scorers. Wiggins did manage 24 points, but was contained in the closing minutes, and LaVine and Towns combined for only 24 points on an abysmal 8-for-27 from the field.
Credit for containing Towns can largely be given to Al-Farouq Aminu, who battled in the post with Minnesota’s center. Aminu’s effort, coupled continued double teams from Mason Plumlee forced Towns to pass the ball repeatedly early on. Aminu did leave Towns open for perimeter jumps, but the Blazers caught a break and he failed to convert on the longer shots.
“I thought Mason Plumlee was really good in his trapping and his energy defensively,” said Stotts. “And then [Aminu] with the helps and double teams was very effective at, at least, forcing Towns out of his comfort zone.”
After holding the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge to only 8 points on Friday, this is the second straight game featuring Aminu’s exemplary defensive effort against a bigger, highly skilled opponent. Importantly, Aminu’s competent post defense has allowed Plumlee to roam defensively on the perimeter and double-team when needed - an assignment better suited to his athleticism.
Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner also played solid trapping, on-ball defense against LaVine and Minnesota’s other guards. Once again, the Blazers repeatedly blitzed the ballhandlers and broke up passes in the halfcourt. Quick hands from Crabbe and Turner also led to strips around the basket on several occasions.
The Timberwolves secondary players did make an effort to make the Blazers pay for the aggressive, trapping defense - Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Dunn all scored in double figures. But Head Coach Terry Stotts will be happy with that trade-off given how Towns and LaVine struggled.
“I was really pleased with our defense almost all night. The third quarter, obviously, was even better, but our defense from the very beginning was very good. I thought we were aggressive on the pick and rolls and the post-ups,” said Stotts.
Despite the positive signs from the Blazers’ defense, all is not well with the Portland offense. They were completely reliant on McCollum tonight, who scored or assisted on more than half of Portland’s field goals. Without Damian Lillard, who missed his fourth consecutive game recovering from a sprained ankle, Turner is the only player other than McCollum who can create a shot. Consequently, many possessions consist of multiple ball-screens for McCollum followed by over-dribbling and either a mid-range jumper or a contested drive.
When McCollum shoots 64 percent from the field and draws nine free-throws they can get away with it. But the offensive struggles down the stretch against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 26 revealed that the CJ-centric offense is not always sustainable.
Lillard’s absence has also revealed that McCollum has room to grow as a distributor. McCollum has been known to throw flashy passes, but he does not have the same court vision as Lillard and is not as adept at putting his teammates in scoring position, which makes it easier for defenses to disrupt the flow offense when McCollum runs the point. He will, presumably, improve on that with more experience as a top-flight scoring threat, but for now it’s been a semi-glaring flaw - he’s averaged only 4.5 assists over the last 4 games despite taking a whopping 85 shots.
The Blazers big man bench trio of Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, and Ed Davis continue to struggle. The trio combined for 0 points, 5 rebounds, 4 fouls, and 1 turnover in 25 minutes of action. To make matters worse, two of the three were on the court together for multiple stretches. Stotts has toyed with the rotation (tonight he played Vonleh instead of Davis in the first half), but so far all three have been a disappointment, severely hampering the Blazers’ bench.
Despite the imperfect play, the Blazers should still be happy with tonight’s results on defense. If their new, more aggressive, scheme continues to work when Lillard returns to the lineup and (hopefully) fixes the offense, they could still turn around a season that looked to be a complete loss a week ago.
Portland returns to action on Wednesday in a nationally televised game against the Golden State Warriors.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado
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