When the Portland Trail Blazers met the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night in Target center, the result was equal parts NBA Basketball and Christopher Nolan movie plot. Everyone watching knew at some point the protagonist would be tested and ultimately outmatched by their foes. Their fall, if not inevitable, would at least be painful to watch. Tonight’s adversaries were the highly motivated duo of Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Together their combined 64 points, including Towns’ utter dominance of the fourth quarter, carried enough gravitas to secure Portland’s downfall, 110-109.
The first quarter saw the Blazers sleepwalking through possessions on both ends of the floor. Tonight’s scouting report no doubt featured Wiggins and Towns at the top of the priority list. If the first period were the only evidence, you’d swear they weren’t even included. Wide open midrange jumpers for Wiggins and deep paint catches for Towns resulted in a combined 10-15 from the field for 22 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot 2-5 with 6 points total. The fact that Portland was even in the game was remarkable. After one, the Timberwolves led 29-23.
The second quarter saw Portland wake from their fog, discovering their calling in true Nolan fashion. The turn-around could be summed in a single word: effort. Instead of watching Wiggins take his favorite free throw line jumper, defenders ran him off his spot. Ricky Rubio was forced into errant passes by tight perimeter defense and Towns was met in the post by one, two, sometimes three Trail Blazers. Portland generated steals, blocks, turnovers and easy opportunities on the offensive end as the scoreboard turned upside down. Portland outscored the Wolves 34-20 in the period en route to a 57-49 halftime lead.
Everything that Portland did right in the second quarter fell apart in the third. Instead of hustling and racing to the spot defensively, they reached, grabbed, and hesitated. A 16-7 made free throw disparity in favor of Minnesota destroyed whatever work the Blazers managed. Minnesota outscored Portland 37-26 and took a 3-point lead into the final frame.
Portland rediscovered defensive intensity in the final quarter but seemingly-forced offensive sets often resulted in bad looks. Even on the break, everything the Blazers did went wrong. The offensive muddle left both teams in a daze until Karl-Anthony Towns suddenly remembered that Portland was Jusuf Nurkless.
With 5:46 remaining in the quarter, Portland scored their 98th point on a McCollum free throw. From there on out, Towns dictated the game from the paint and no one was going to stop him. Al-Farouq Aminu, heretofore having a fantastic 2-way game was no match for the larger and more gifted Towns. The following are the Wolves’ scoring plays from the 5:30 mark of the fourth to the finish:
- 5:27 Towns, putback layup
- 4:03 Towns, driving hook shot
- 3:41 Rush, free throw 1 of 2
- 3:05 Towns, jump shot
- 1:45 Wiggins, jump shot
- 0:53 Towns, dunk
Towns would account for 14 points in the period and 8 of Minnesota’s final 11. Lillard kept the game close with 8 late points of his own but it wasn’t quite enough. The Blazers were on the cusp of taking their 7th straight; they ended up one big man short.
Portland’s typical backcourt production reads 55+ points and 10+ assists on above average effective shooting percentage. If the supporting cast plays well, that’s a recipe for a win. The supporting cast mostly held up their end tonight but the starting guards only reached par in the assist category. Otherwise Lillard and McCollum combined for 42 points on 12-35 shooting, 3-14 from the arc. Without the 15/10/2 that Portland has been getting from Jusuf Nurkic, the hill became too steep to climb.
Portland was notably short handed in the one place you can’t afford to be when you play Minnesota: center. Meyers Leonard is playing like he’s struggling with herniated disks in his back and hip problems. A hobbling pivot is better than no pivot, but even under the best conditions Towns-Leonard is a bad matchup for Portland.
In the past when Portland has struggled to contain Towns, the Wolves have inexplicably gone away from him at crunch time. Not so tonight. Minnesota force fed KAT on every possession, forcing Portland to commit extra defenders or pay the price. Even when the Blazers committed help, the ball went out and came back with Towns for the final look. He delivered almost every time.
The Towns performance is understandable. The slippages in effort were less so. The Blazers appeared to skate into this game assuming the Timberwolves would roll over. That wasn’t the case. Despite recent success, Portland was in no position to take their opponent lightly. They might have.
As good as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been lately, a game below the “crazy good” threshold was probably due. Problem was, they both had it on the same night. 15-17 shooting from the foul line became their only buoy to cling to. It held them, but not the team.
Al-Farouq Aminu drew the unfortunate task of having to help guard Towns tonight While over-matched and often beaten on the block, Aminu turned in one of his best 2-way games of the season. He got the better of Towns now and then. More importantly, he was one of the few Blazers giving full-gear effort every minute he was on the floor. The resulting 20 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks amount to a helluva game.
Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh continued their superb play. While they were kept off the boards a bit by Towns and Gorgui Dieng, they rounded out the effort squad with a combined 29 points, 12 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks.
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