The Portland Trail Blazers dropped their fifth game in a row and eighth in their last nine Sunday night in a 116-111 losing effort to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Blazers benefitted from Damian Lillard’s return, but were still without CJ McCollum and Cody Zeller, who are still nursing injuries.
Both teams struggled offensively, especially in the first half. The Blazers also struggled from the free throw line, missing nine of their 28 attempts from the charity stripe.
Out of all the games in this current losing streak, this is the one that the Blazers probably wish they had back the most. The teams were tied at 106 with two minutes remaining, but the Wolves outscored the Blazers 10-5 down the stretch and stole a win on the road.
For a quarter-by-quarter breakdown, see our Instant Recap.
Here’s a look at some of tonight’s storylines:
A Starting Five Switcheroo
Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
After losing four straight, Chauncey Billups is looking for a different result, which explains why he swapped out Robert Covington in the starting five for Larry Nance Jr. It’s the first time Nance has started for the Blazers and the first time Covington has come off the bench in his Portland tenure.
Covington really helped the second unit defensively. He was surrounded by shooters off the bench, which forced him to focus more on the defensive end. If that’s what Billups was going for in this lineup change, it worked. Covington recorded five steals and four blocks.
Nance was a positive in crashing the glass, grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds.
However, Nance and the starters (Lillard, Powell, Little, Nurkic) really struggled at the beginning of the second half, going from a one-point deficit to 11 in the span of four minutes. Given that it was a new starting five, the group still needs to feel each other out, but I wouldn’t give up on that specific five after just one game.
Dame’s Back and The Blazers Really Missed Him
Dame was a big source of offense for the Blazers, scoring 24 points in his debut, but he did look a little bit rusty. Lillard made just five of his 17 attempts from the field and struggled from three, making just three of 14 attempts. It’s hard to win basketball games when your best player has an inefficient scoring night.
However, it isn’t time to panic. The Blazers probably would have lost this game by 20 had he not suited up, and it will take time for him to get into his rhythm again. It’s frustrating because this was a winnable game against a beatable opponent, but there’s still a lot of season left.
Ant & Benny Mac
Anfernee Simons and Ben McLemore made franchise history tonight, becoming the first teammates to make five or more threes off the bench in the same game.
.@AnferneeSimons & @BenMcLemore are the first Blazers teammates to ever make 5+ threes off the bench in the same game— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 13, 2021
Without CJ McCollum, the slack needs to be picked up. Ant and Benny Mac did just that. McLemore hit 5 of 6 from three for 15 points and a team-high +17, while Simons came away with a season-high 26 points on 9 of 20 from the field and 6 of 12 from three.
As the starters struggled, the bench production kept them in the game and these two deserve a lot of credit behind the successes this team had tonight.
Too Many Turnovers
Portland only averages 13.6 turnovers per game, but had 11 in the first half. The team finished with 19 turnovers on the game, leading to 21 points for the Wolves. Jusuf Nurkic, Norman Powell and Damian Lillard combined for 13 of the team’s turnovers. Yes, usage does correlate to turnovers, but the supposed best players on the team should not be turning the ball over this much.
Turning the ball over is the easiest way to lose a basketball game, and it’s a big part of why the Blazers ended up on the losing end of tonight’s game.
A Game of Runs
While the first half was pretty tight and no team held a lead more than seven points, the second half was a giant pendulum swinging back and forth.
The Wolves marched to a 12-1 run at the beginning of the second half to take their largest lead of the game. Then, the Blazers followed with an 11-3 run to cut the deficit to two.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Blazers began to strike with a 16-4 run led predominantly by Simons, who scored eight of the points in the stretch.
Small Ball to Close
Tied at 104, Chauncey Billups decided to take out traditional center Jusuf Nurkic and go small, inserting Robert Covington in the game as a small-ball five. Nurkic struggled for the entire game, while Covington played well on the defensive end, so the switch was the right call in the moment. Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off.
The Wolves won the rebounding battle down the stretch, specifically Jarred Vanderbilt, who grabbed four of his eight rebounds in the final two minutes of the game.
The offense couldn’t get it done in the half court as the Wolves locked in on defense and the Blazers had no response.
The team hosts the Phoenix Suns Tuesday at the Moda Center. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. PST.