Minnesota Timberwolves (28-43) at Portland Trail Blazers(33-38)
March 25, 2017, 7:00 PST
Watch: CSNNW; Listen: Rip City Radio 620 AM
Blazers injuries: Ed Davis (out), Festus Ezeli (out)
Timberwolves injuries: Nemanja Bjelica (out), Zach Lavine (out), Adreian Payne (out), Nikola Pekovic (out)
SBN Affiliate: Canis Hoopus
After splitting the first two games of their current three-game home stand, the Portland Trail Blazers are back in action tonight against the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.
Minnesota had been playing well through a tough stretch in their schedule, going 6-2 to pull within striking distance of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, including wins over the Nuggets, Jazz, Warriors, Clippers, and Wizards. However, they have come back to earth with five straight losses, falling six games behind the Nuggets and effectively ending their playoff hopes.
Despite their disappointing season, the Timberwolves have made real progress, going 22-25 after a 6-18 start. Their overall margin of victory of -0.6 is second best among the league’s non-playoff teams, and they are starting to learn how to effectively win games, something young teams struggle with.
And make no mistake, this is a young team in terms of impact players. Franchise cornerstones Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine (who is out for the year with a torn ACL), and Karl-Anthony Towns are all 21 years old. Each of the trio—who combine for more than 66 points per game—are mere months removed from not being able to order a beer at a restaurant. The future is bright for Tom Thibodeau’s Wolves.
The Timberwolves are led by Towns, an off-the-charts talented big who can do it all on both ends. Towns seemed to be going through the motions for a stretch this season, but has stepped his game up since early January, averaging 28 points and 13 rebounds on an insane 60 percent from the floor, 42 percent from the 3-point line, and 83 percent from the charity stripe since Jan. 9.
Not to be outdone, fellow No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is having a breakout season of his own, putting up 23 points a game on 45 percent shooting. Despite Wiggins’ success this season, watching his athleticism and raw skills still leaves fans wanting more, but for now, Wiggins is a solid defender and volume scorer who has the potential to be elite once he figures out how to improve his efficiency.
With Lavine and his 18 points per game lost for the season, the back court currently consists of point guard Ricky Rubio and veteran Brandon Rush. Rubio, now in his sixth year in the NBA, is the definition of a pass-first point guard. He’s famous for elite floor vision and distribution skills, but he’s one of the worst-shooting guards in the league. This allows opposing guards to sag off Rubio and double on Towns fairly easily. But there’s hope. A career 37.5 percent shooter, Rubio has actually shown significant improvement this season, averaging 41 percent from the floor.
Forward Gorgui Dieng completes the starting lineup. He’s a solid rebounder and defender who fits in well with Minnesota’s other, more high-usage players.
Off the bench, the Wolves trot out disappointing rookie Kris Dunn, who has struggled mightily with his shot at the pro level, and Shabazz Muhammad, who has managed to go from elite prep prodigy, to bust, to solid role player more quickly than anyone in recent memory.
The Blazers currently sit 1.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot, after a tough loss against the scorching Milwaukee Bucks and an easy victory over the lifeless New York Knicks bench. Tonight Portland has an opportunity to plan and adjust in playoff-like fashion against the Wolves as they will be facing Minnesota three times over the next 14 days.
The key for tonight’s game will be Jusuf Nurkić using his body against Towns without getting in foul trouble. Don’t be surprised to see KAT go right a Nurkić early. If he isn’t able to get Nurkić in quick foul trouble, he could look to score from the outside. Moe Harkless will have his hands full with Wiggins, who can be forced into inefficient mid-range shots if he is forced to work too hard.
On the offensive end, Minnesota is learning to play solid defense under Thibodeau. Theyhave three quality individual defenders in Wiggins, Rubio, and Towns. Damian Lillard may have a bit more difficulty getting his, but with the way he’s been playing since the All-Star break, who am I to say he’s not going to have a big night? The Wolves have the proven potential to beat any team in the league, but on the second night of a back-to-back (after playing overtime), on the road, with their playoff hopes recently dashed, the odds are in Portland’s favor.