By any measure, the Portland Trail Blazers have had an up and down season. Every time they flirt with the depths of despair, they pull off a miracle win. Every time you think they’re back on the right track they find a way to lose when they shouldn’t. All of that and more was encapsulated in their 105-98 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night. The dominant narrative had little to do with overcoming obstacles and growing as a team. One guy got ridiculously hot, Portland played defense for 6+ minutes, and after building a significant lead, the Minnesota Timberwolves seemingly forgot how to play basketball for an entire quarter. All of that together proved enough to rescue a win and help propel the mercurial Blazers closer to the playoffs.
Just three days ago the Trail Blazers were embarrassed in Minnesota by Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl Anthony-Towns. The opening stanza of tonight’s game repeated the storyline from Monday’s contest. At one point Rubio outshot and outscored the Blazers all by himself in the first few minutes. Wiggins and Towns torched the nets on top of that: the makings of an utter disaster for the home team. As the quarter closed Minnesota took their foot off the gas and allowed the Blazers a few pity buckets, the only saving grace of the period. At the end of one, Minnesota led 34-20 and it didn’t feel like it was even that close.
The second period looked a lot like the first early on. Wiggins stayed hot but a few threes by Portland opened up the defense enough to allow a few paint points. That was enough to break the shell. Points began to flow like the swallows of Capistrano and the Blazers were able to turn the game. The score read 63-51, Timberwolves at the half.
The third quarter was the most competitive of the evening. Each team matched the other shot for shot, stop for stop. Portland’s defense started to rear its head, an impression made clearer as Minnesota went away from Towns in the interior. When the game shifted to the perimeter the Blazers made up ground. Back and forth they went, playing each other to a 27-26 standstill for an 87-80 Minnesota lead after three.
The fourth quarter was...well, unexpected to say the least. Portland was competing but the Timberwolves’ edge stretched from the earliest moments of the game. No matter how the Blazers chipped away, they weren’t erasing it fast enough. But just when you thought they might succumb to a disastrous home loss, Allen Crabbe entered the fray. Scoring 13 of his 25 points in the period, Crabbe caused Portland’s pot to boil over. Between 9:13 and 8:25 in the fourth Crabbe scored 10 points, courtesy of a trio of three-pointers plus a four-point-play foul shot. Crabbe would toss in one more three at 7:28 to give Portland a 6-point lead. Thanks to Crabbe the former margin chipping became lead extending and the Blazers walked off with the 105-98 win.
From Portland’s perspective this game was a flaming dumpster fire for nearly three quarters. The Blazers looked tired, lifeless, and completely out of sorts. They didn’t recover via a magical, come-together moment. Allen Crabbe pulled their tushes from the fire. For 90 seconds he went full-on ham...a kind of crazy I can’t fully describe. His teammates owe him dinner for the next week.
The other factors contributing to Portland’s victory win were largely out of their control. Minnesota opted to go through Wiggins instead of Towns in the third quarter. Later on when Towns got into foul trouble, Minnesota Head Coach Tom Thibodeau probably waited too long to get him back into the game. Portland had no answer for Towns at any point. It didn’t matter who Portland threw in his direction, he brushed them aside on his way to the rim, finishing the night 6 for 9 in the paint.
Whether or not Jusuf Nurkić returns to the lineup in the next few weeks, the Blazers have got to find a way to be competitive in the first 12 minutes of a game. Over the past 3 games combined the Blazer have been outscored in the first quarter 87-64. When you’re short handed, you can’t afford to get that far behind early on. They don’t have the depth to claw back into games, let alone pull ahead. If they repeat this script against a deeper and more veteran Utah team on Saturday they’ll get waxed.
This section should start and end with Allen Crabbe. It’s rare you can say that a single bench player’s performance over such a short period was the undisputed factor in changing the outcome of the game. Crabbe’s 13 points outburst in the fourth quarter and 25 total points swung it.
CJ McCollum has been up and down lately. Tonight he was meh, shooting 8-for-19 from the field. An explosive night from him would’ve made this game much more comfortable for Portland.
Damian Lillard’s shooting slump continues. Tonight he shot 7-for-21, 1-for-9 from distance. Over his last four games he’s firing 26-for-78 (33 percent) from the field. Right now it look as if the absence of Nurkić is allowing teams to hone in on Dame, particularly in the pick and roll. , 8 assists and 9 rebounds make the box score look pretty on the surface but his misfires from the floor are amplified without Nurkić to clean up on the offensive glass. Lillard snapping out of the slump might allow the Blazers to get off to better starts. They need it.
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CanisHoopus will not be receiving thank you letters from the Nuggets anytime soon. With the win, Portland’s Magic Number to clinch the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs bracket stands at 2. Any combination of 2 Portland wins or Denver losses will put the Blazers in the post-season.