The Portland Trail Blazers reached the high point of their season, both in winning percentage and morale, as they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night by a score of 108-99. Behind 34 points from Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota made a run at it, going up by double-digits for significant stretches of the first three quarters. Tough Portland defense, sparkling bench play, and a smattering of three-pointers put the Blazers ahead in the fourth and there they stayed, earning their fifth win in a row and a stronger claim to decent playoff positioning come April.
The Blazers started the game focused like a Glamor Shot, shooting 25% for the period while giving up buckets at the rim like crazy. Portland tried to work the ball inside but Jusuf Nurkic couldn’t get clear and nobody else could get close to the cup consistently. The Timberwolves didn’t find shots for Towns, which kept Portland’s deficit to 5 instead of, say...30. Minnesota led 24-19 after one.
The ‘Wolves rectified their first-quarter oversight in the second period, as Towns scored 19 points on 6-9 shooting. A heroic effort from Ed Davis down low, plus a late-quarter run spurred by Lillard and CJ McCollum, brought the Blazers even in the period despite the deluge from KAT. Portland trailed 49-44 at the half. Lillard walked into the locker room shooting 2-12. Portland was 0-12 from the arc. Things looked grim.
The third quarter started with a mini-barrage from Nurkic, his best stretch of the evening. Then McCollum hit a three-pointer to bring life to the arena. Towns continued to dominate mid-period, though, and Portland’s rally proved short-lived. But once again Lillard keyed an end-of-quarter run, bringing the Blazers within 78-75 as the period closed.
Though the first three quarters were two-dimensional for the Blazers, the fourth came in full 3D. Portland popped six triples in the period, accounting for 2⁄3 of their long-distance strikes for the entire night. Hitting long balls opened up the mid-range for Lillard and his understudy Shabazz Napier. They kept Portland’s offense chugging.
The defense proved even more impressive. Davis earned fourth-quarter minutes over Nurkic, keeping both the lane and the glass in Portland’s favor. Portland’s perimeter defenders closed out on their counterparts like kids running for the ice cream truck. The Blazers forced turnovers and misses as the ‘Wolves devolved into one-on-one basketball. Towns never caught fire again. With Jimmy Butler in street clothes, Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Crawford couldn’t score enough to make up the difference. As the quarter lengthened, so did the distance between the Blazers and their pursuers. Lillard buckets that once kept Portland afloat now stretched out the lead and brought the crowd to their feet. By the end of the game Timberwolves Coach Tom Thibodeau was cursing Portland’s defense the way the Grinch curses Christmas. Indeed, the hearts of the Blazers and their fans grew three sizes this day as Portland notched a critical victory over a playoff seeding rival.
Portland’s 108 points were impressive, especially considering the abominable first quarter. Ditto Lillard’s game-high 35 points given his terrible start. We’ve seen both of those before. Portland’s suffocating defense, kept up through the entire, game-deciding fourth period regardless of substitutions, was revelatory and impressive. Davis was a stalwart, but Lillard, Napier, McCollum, and Al-Farouq Aminu got laser-tight as well. Minnesota started the fourth period with 78 points and ended the game with only 99. When they needed it most, the Blazers’ defense came up huge.
Lillard, McCollum, and Napier accounted for all but one of Portland’s buckets in that fourth quarter, every one of them from 16 feet and out. Towns and the ‘Wolves did a masterful job taking away the lane. The Blazers got zero buckets in the paint (though they did earn free throws off of drives). Fielding three guards to whom open jumpers look like layups has advantages. This became clear in crunch time. Without Butler, fielding a mess of bigger and slower defenders, the Timberwolves just couldn’t keep up with Portland’s passing or screens.
The Blazers also forced 15 turnovers and scored 15 fast break points. Sometimes speed matters.
Lillard put the dagger in, but tonight’s game ball should be split between Davis and Napier, both of whom came through with consistent, timely offerings off the bench. Without the reserves, late-game heroics from Lillard and McCollum would have amounted to desperation rather than a victory lap.
This victory ties the season series between Portland and Minnesota at 2-2. The two teams are now virtually tied in a five-way traffic jam for seeds 3-7 in the West as well. The Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans have 26 losses. The Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder now sport 27. Buckle up.
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The Blazers face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.