Damian Lillard was the engine the kept the team going, but Carmelo Anthony was the hero down the stretch, continuing to etch his name into the record books while propelling the Blazers to another victory.
Damian Lillard’s clutch performance for Team LeBron must have been fresh in the minds of the Timberwolves, as their strategy from the tip was clearly to get the ball into anybody’s hands besides the six-time NBA All-Star. Minnesota threw multiple defenders towards Lillard as soon as he crossed the half-court line. But the Wolves didn’t have a Plan B for when Dame would coolly thwart whatever trap was sent his way like Road Runner instinctively dodging the falling ACME anvil of Wile E. Coyote. Lillard seemed to simply brush off the extra attention, find whichever of his teammates was left wide open - usually Enes Kanter or Derrick Jones Jr. - and deliver a crisp pass leading to some of the widest of open lanes those two will ever see. Lillard racked up 8 of his 10 assists on the night and Portland survived most of the opening period feasting on easy baskets at the rim. Minnesota was content not letting Dame get into a comfortable shooting rhythm, but the Blazers led 33-24 after one.
After what felt a quick and breezy opening 12 minutes, the second quarter became a slog. Both teams hacked their way into the penalty in what seemed like the first minute. Throw in two coach’s challenges and a bodily fluids timeout after a driving Carmelo Anthony took a hard swipe across the face for good measure, and the flow of the game changed completely. Anthony set up shop at the free throw line, where the Wolves’ younger, less experienced defenders sent him. ‘Melo probably could have interested them in a watch, steaks by delivery, and a timeshare in Maui, because they were buying every jab step and pump fake he was selling. Anthony’s eight points from the line in the half helped Portland keep the engine going while Lillard rested on the bench and preserved a nine-point lead heading into the break at 66-57.
Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves’ defense started to come alive early in the third, blunting the Blazers’ attack and threatening to turn the game a bit more harrowing than Portland probably expected coming in. A lot of the damage came on the offensive boards, where Minnesota was both relentless and fortunate, the recipients of lucky bounces and possibly generous (non-) goaltending calls. Lillard started to find more of a scoring groove, but the Wolves had an answer just about every time, including a five-point turnaround sequence in the final seconds that saw Lillard get his layup rejected by Naz Reid. That led to a three-pointer by Jaden McDaniels, giving Minnesota a one-point 94-93 lead heading into the final frame.
Smelling the chance for an upset, the Wolves’ second unit came out with intensity, but Anthony had other plans, scoring eight points during a 16-9 Blazer run to open the fourth quarter. It took the game from potentially nerve-wracking to manageable with a small amount of antacid tablets. Anfernee Simons had two triples during that run as well, and yet again, Portland’s bench was able to right the ship facing a deficit in the second half before Lillard even had to check back into the game. Minnesota kept it close the rest of the way, but the Blazers never relinquished control.
Anthony’s 24 points tonight propelled him to yet another milestone, passing Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon into 11th place on the NBA all-time scorers list. It was one of Melo’s most complete games of the season, going along with 4 assists, 2 steals and a block for good measure. Most importantly, his shot helped Portland when they needed it most down the stretch.
The Blazers will stay in Minnesota for a rematch with the Wolves tomorrow evening at 5 p.m. Pacific.