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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves Preview

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With Minnesota leading the season series 2-1, Thursday’s game could be crucial come playoff seeding time.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (35-26) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (38-26)

Thursday, March 1st - 7:30 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: None
Timberwolves injuries: Jimmy Butler (out),
How to watch on TV: TNT
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Canis Hoopus

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Portland was up in the season series. It’s been corrected — Isaiah.

The Portland Trail Blazers hope to continue their winning ways as they take on the MInnessota Timberwolves in a game that should provide playoff intensity.

The Blazers, winners of 13 of their last 18 games, are playing their best basketball of the year and currently sit in sixth place in the Western Conference, only 1.5 games behind third place Minnesota. With only 21 games remaining, and a brutal March schedule, the Blazers will look to prove themselves against a Wolves team that has taken the next step this season.

Of course, Minnesota will be without star wing Jimmy Butler, who tore his right meniscus in a non-contact injury last week — but Minnesota still has ample firepower. This game kicks off official “put up or shut up” time for Portland. Let’s hope they get things started on the right foot.

What to watch for

Can Nemanja Bjelica hold the fort down? With Jimmy Butler rehabbing from his torn meniscus for the next 4-6 weeks, Bjelica has been thrust into the starting lineup. While he isn’t remotely the two-way player that Butler is, Bjelica is a decent scorer — more talented than his six point per game average indicates. Bjelica shoots more than half of his attempts from beyond the 3-point line at a 43 percent clip and seldom takes poor shots. However, it remains to be seen if he’s going to be effective enough to mitigate Butler’s absence.

Which Andrew Wiggins is going to show up? Will it be the one that only scored nine points the last time Portland matched up with the Wolves? Or the one that dropped 40 on the Clippers just five weeks ago? While Wiggins still has consistency issues, he’s athletic and can get going in a hurry. Minnesota will lean on him heavily with Butler out of the lineup.

How will Portland defend Karl-Anthony Towns? While Towns hasn’t taken the leap many expected of him this season, he’s still putting up 20 points and 12 rebounds a night. He has a great face-up jumper and is shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc on more than three attempts a night. This makes him a tough matchup for centers like Jusuf Nurkic, who don’t enjoy traveling too far out of the paint on defense. Either Nurkic needs to be willing to come out to the 3-point line or the Blazers are going to have to get creative on defense.

What they’re saying

Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post discussed how the Timberwolves are winning games despite being an inefficient team:

The offenses in Houston and Golden State are focused around the three-point shot. The Rockets average a league-high 42.5 three-point attempts, accounting for more than half (50.4 percent) of their shots overall, while the Warriors take 29.9 per game from behind the arc, more than a third (35 percent) of their field goals per game. The Timberwolves attempt just 26 percent of their shots from long range, averaging just 22.4. Both marks are the second-lowest in the NBA this season after the New York Knicks.

Minnesota doesn’t attempt many shots in the restricted area, either, producing the fifth-lowest rate of shots from there (24.8 per game). Shots in the restricted area (1.26 points per shot) and three-point attempts (1.09 points per attempt) represent two of the most efficient shots a team can take, behind only the two free throw attempts awarded after drawing a foul (1.54 points per attempt).

So how does this offensive dinosaur maintain its standing in the perilous Western Conference? The Timberwolves are near the top of the league in three of the four factors Dean Oliver identified as the most important in basketball: turnover percentage (13 percent, second), free throw rate (28.5 percent of field goal attempts, fifth) and offensive rebound percentage (25 percent, fourth). The Timberwolves also are good at making the shots they do take to rank 11th in the fourth factor, shooting, with an effective field goal rate of 53 percent.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post asks if the Wolves can survive without Jimmy Butler:

Now? The Timberwolves need Towns and Wiggins to put the lessons they’ve learned from Butler into practice. Not only does Butler have the best net rating on the team (plus-7.8), Minnesota has its worst net rating (minus-7.3) when he is on the bench.

If that continues over the next six weeks, Butler won’t have a playoff team to return to once he’s healthy.

It won’t take long to see how the Timberwolves will react to losing Butler. After what should be an easy game against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, they have these eight games — at Portland, at Utah, home against Boston and Golden State, at Washington and San Antonio and then home against Houston and the Clippers. All of those teams have winning records.

How they fare in that stretch will depend in large part on how Wiggins adjusts to the loss of Butler. Despite signing a five-year, $148 million max contract extension before the season began, Wiggins remains one of the NBA’s most divisive players. Towns’s real plus-minus ranks 16th in the league but Wiggins sits at 249th, right between Trail Blazers backup guard Pat Connaughton and Detroit Pistons backup point guard Ish Smith.