If the Portland Trail Blazers could design the perfect offensive game plan, it’d probably look like the one they employed against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday evening at Target Center. Damian Lillard passed artistically. Portland’s bench came through big time. The Blazers shot 55% from the field, over 40% from the three-point arc. The only thing they didn’t do is win the game. Veteran guards Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford led their team in a come-from-behind fourth quarter in which they could do no wrong and the Blazers could draw no fouls. When the final horn sounded, its note rang with frustration for Portland, recipients of a beautiful, but dispiriting, 108-107 loss.
Jusuf Nurkic said hello to the Timberwolves tonight with three straight conversions at the rim off of screen plays. This would inaugurate a quarter in which nearly every Blazers shot attempt would come either at the cup or from distance. It almost looked like last-generation Portland “percentage” offense, with Damian Lillard feeding everyone except the popcorn vendor with assists. The Blazers had trouble stopping Minnesota inside, but managed to limit their looks otherwise. A pair of late threes from Al-Farouq Aminu (plus 14 points in the paint for the team overall) helped the Blazers to a 24-24 tie after one.
Portland’s defensive woes intensified in the second as the Timberwolves baked the second unit like a gingerbread cookie. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler keyed a 7-0 Minnesota run early in the period. Portland’s defensive paint woes would continue throughout. But this was the quarter of the three-pointer. The Blazers shot 6-6 beyond the arc with Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier, and Zach Collins all striking true. Minnesota scored 27, but Portland topped them with a huge 30 to take a 54-51 halftime lead.
The third period started out blistering hot as the teams combined for 19 points in first 3 minutes. Portland scored at the rim off of guard drives, Minnesota off of offensive put-backs. The Blazers would generate points in the paint all quarter long, but their three-point shooting went colder than December in Bemidji. They missed a half-dozen long shots before Lillard finally connected with 55 seconds left in the period. But Portland’s layups beat Minnesota’s mid-range shooting, which was both persistent and incompetent. The Blazers finished the period on a 9-2 run and took control, 85-76, heading into the final period.
The Blazers maintained their lead through the early part of the fourth. They pushed an already-adequate rebounding advantage even further, while watching the Timberwolves pursue their self-destructive love affair with mid-range jumpers. But veteran Jamal Crawford brought the blowtorch, keeping the ‘Wolves within striking distance long enough for Portland to commit a couple turnovers. Then Jimmy Butler took over. Crawford would end up with 6 made field goals in the period, Butler with three plus enough free throws to make the vein on Terry Stotts’ forehead go volcanic.
With 1:00 remaining in the game, Butler hit a pair of foul shots to give his team a 106-105 lead. McCollum, responsible for the foul, made up for it by canning a straight-away jumper to put Portland back on top by a point. The Butler missed an ugly-sweater jumper with 31 seconds remaining, followed by a Lillard layup that went wide as he was fouled...in theory, anyway. No whistle blew. That left one possession for Minnesota, down by a point, 8 seconds remaining. Butler got the call. He drove the left baseline into three Portland defenders. They swarmed him, jumped to block his shot, then promptly fell on top of him. Al-Farouq Aminu was whistled for the infraction and Butler canned both foul shots to make the score 108-107, Minnesota.
With two seconds left, Lillard received the inbounds pass in the frontcourt, but couldn’t shake free of his defender. His leaning 27-footer sailed long and the Timberwolves pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat.
The Blazers’ offensive plan was pristine. Their shot chart remained concentrated in huge value areas: the three-point arc and the restricted circle. The effort was cohesive, coordinated, and looked pretty besides. They shot 55% from the field, 42% from the arc. They notched 26 assists on 46 made shots, scored 54 points in the paint, and even managed 10 fast break points. You’d have a hard time designing a better attack.
They suffered from a trio of maladies that conspired to keep the win out of their grasp:
- They lived and died by the three-point shot. The first quarter they went 2-7, the second 6-6, the third 1-7, and the fourth 1-4. The overall percentage works out fine. They survived the third period because the Timberwolves couldn’t guard the lane to save their lives. But when the Blazers needed that final edge, they found it long gone. Not connecting from long range hampered their ability to spread the floor, which made it easier for the ‘Wolves to defend at the rim in the crucial minutes.
- Jamal Crawford is 6’5, Jimmy Butler 6’8. Both are streakier than a Windexed mirror. Lillard and McCollum gave up height on defense, which allowed comfortable shots as the big guards warmed up in the final period. By the time the much-larger Turner and Aminu got on them, it was too late. Nor could Portland’s longer, stronger defenders keep Minnesota’s dynamic duo in front of them when they did check in. That fourth-quarter truck rolled downhill and got out of control quickly.
- The Blazers shot but 5 free throws tonight against 21 for the Timberwolves. The missed call on the Lillard layup late in the fourth hurt. Butler winning the game with free throws instead of field goals put salt in the wound. The Blazers pushed the ball inside all night. Their players were quicker off the dribble and scored in traffic. Normally that’s a recipe for extra foul shots. Instead Portland found a complete lack of them. It’s pretty tough to stomach hitting 4 more field goals and 3 more three-pointers, than the opponent, shooting more accurately in both those categories, winning the rebounding battle, the paint battle, and the fast break battle, then losing the game at the charity stripe. Ironically, Portland committed only 5 more personal fouls than the ‘Wolves did (19-14). Minnesota just generated four times the foul shots off of theirs.
Portland did cough up 17 turnovers, a constant threat when you play the ‘Wolves. But they did a fantastic job of getting back on defense afterwards and virtually tied in the points-after-turnovers category even though they committed 7 more than Minnesota did.
Damian Lillard scored 17 points, missed 5 of his 7 three-point attempts, and committed 6 turnovers. His hands weren’t clean. But—and this was a Benoit Benjamin-sized but—Portland’s high-efficiency offense had everything to do with Lillard threatening to score, then passing. He shared the ball brilliantly on his way to 13 assists, tied with his season high.
Jusuf Nurkic shot an incredible 9-12 from the field on his way to 20 points and also helped contain Karl-Anthony Towns inside the three-point arc. Nurkic faded late in the game, but his performance up to that point was sterling.
CJ McCollum also scored 20, many from the mid-range...like the Timberwolves.
Evan Turner had 6 assists and Al-Farouq Aminu hit 3-5 from distance.
Shabazz Napier won the Battle of the Shabazzes tonight, shooting 6-8 from the field for 15 points in 19 minutes. (Shabazz Muhammad didn’t get into the game for Minnesota.)
Ed Davis had 4 offensive rebounds and ended up 5-6 from the floor for 10 points.
Top to bottom, this was clearly the best statistical performance from Portland’s individual players in a loss this year. Nobody looked bad; they just didn’t quite win.
Canis Hoopus loves their veteran guards right now.
Damian Lillard is frustrated with the officiating...
...and video catches him getting frustrated with fans too.
The Blazers travel home to face the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night at 7:00 pm, Pacific.
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