The Minnesota Timberwolves visited the Trail Blazers on Saturday night without the services of All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns. In theory, that should have made it easy for the Blazers to paste a 10th loss onto Minnesota’s losing streak. It didn’t turn out quite so simple, but 29 points from Damian Lillard plus 7 blocks and 22 rebounds for Hassan Whiteside helped the Blazers down the ‘Wolves 113-106 in a hard-fought contest.
The Blazers started the game shooting from mid- to long-range with mixed success. They played the ‘Wolves even, exerting defensive pressure, then building a lead by getting to the bucket. Damian Lillard led the charge for Portland, while Shabazz Napier and Andrew Wiggins scored big on the other end. When the Blazers failed to force turnovers, their defense suffered. Fortunately, they forced plenty. Even with that working for them, they couldn’t sustain a lead. Their offense never clicked for long; the Timberwolves out-hustled them for most of the period. A late burst by Lillard gave Portland a 27-23 edge after one, but it wasn’t comfortable.
The Blazers bench had a good showing as the second quarter began. They hit enough shots to be respectable, but defense was the real star. The reserves didn’t let Minnesota anywhere near the bucket unchallenged and the ‘Wolves couldn’t hit enough outside to make a difference. Eventually Minnesota heated up at the arc, but the bench squad still staked the starters to a three-point, 44-41 lead at the 6:00 mark. That’s much better than they have been doing. The ‘Wolves stayed hot as the quarter closed, but so did Lillard, and then some. CJ McCollum hit a pair of threes as the clock dwindled. Portland took a 61-52 lead into halftime. Lillard had 19 at intermission.
The Timberwolves stormed out of the halftime locker room, hitting 3 of their first 4 shots. That didn’t last long. Lillard wasn’t having it. Portland worked the margin back to double-digits, then Napier and Wiggins reprised their first-quarter act. All of a sudden it was tight again, with Portland’s lead hanging around four. The Blazers always seemed to have control, but never enough to relax. Every time their fat got in the fire, Lillard would snatch it out and use it to season the pan in which he fried up some Timberwolf. He was filthy, disgustingly good. Only a fierce run from Jeff Teague, including a near-miracle triple at the buzzer, kept Minnesota close under the Lillard onslaught. Portland led 83-80 after three.
The teams got caught in a dogfight in the early fourth. The Blazers ground inside, while Minnesota worked for open shots on the perimeter. Both succeeded. Like Jason and Freddy, Napier and Wiggins came back AGAIN to slice and dice the Blazers. In the battle of big duos, though, Lillard and McCollum came up bigger. The ‘Wolves still had a chance with the game under 3:00 and the margin as low as six, but Robert Covington lost the ball on a solo, break-away layup, then got capped by Whiteside at the rim on the next possession. Those gaffes exceeded Minnesota’s margin of error. Their slim chance to win turned to none as Napier airballed a wide-open three with 1:09 remaining and the score 105-100. The ‘Wolves never challenged after.
Hassan Whiteside has picked up Portland’s interior defense to a new level. He registered seven blocks and kept the ‘Wolves second-guessing every time their sneakers hit paint. Even better, he picked up only three personal fouls in 38 minutes.
That interior defense does not extend to the three-point arc, especially when Whiteside is on the floor. Minnesota shot 40.5% from distance tonight, but if they had hit every uncontested three, they would have shot 185.2%. Scrub teams find ways to lose winnable games. Good teams find ways to win. Sooner or later, the inability to contest at the arc is going to burn the Blazers big time.
Anthony Tolliver started the game in place of the injured Carmelo Anthony. Tolliver’s eyes looked dead during the introductions and didn’t come alive at any time after. The Blazers tried to run the opening play for him, but the pass didn’t connect. After that it was all downhill, with 0 of 3 shots made in 22 minutes. I don’t know if anything will resurrect Tolliver’s season, but if it’s coming, I wish it would get here already.
Anfernee Simons shot just 2-9 in 21 minutes. He’s hit a speed bump common to score-first young players. The defense knows what he’s going to do with the ball. He’s less open than he was. His shots are spraying everywhere and he looks flummoxed. This is not doing wonders for Portland’s already-impoverished bench.
Damian Lillard is good. It was nice to see another effective. explosive game from him after he struggled much of the last two weeks.
Shabazz Napier also looked good. Andrew Wiggins looked GREAT. What a difference a year makes.
The Blazers close out their pre-Christmas schedule against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday at 7:00, Pacific.