The Portland Trail Blazers squeaked by the Minnesota Timberwolves 125-121 in a Saturday night tilt in Target Center. Damian Lillard scored 24 points with 10 assists in the effort. Enes Kanter added 20 points and 11 rebounds. Most importantly, Carmelo Anthony pitched in 24 off the bench, without which the Blazers would have found themselves underwater. Portland’s Big 3 of Lillard, Kanter, and Anthony counterbalanced Karl-Anthony Towns, who overcame a slow start to score 34.
Ryan Rosback handled our Instant Recap tonight. That will give you a quarter-by-quarter look at the action. Once you’ve seen that, here’s the rest of the story from the win.
Enes Kanter played huge in this game. His footwork, always impeccable, made him look quicker and bigger than anybody the Timberwolves threw up against him. He dominated at the rim and off the glass. Reminder: he was lined up across from Towns. Kanter shot 75% from the floor and grabbed 11 rebounds to Towns’ 8 in slightly fewer minutes.
Kanter wasn’t alone, either. The Blazers seemed intent on beating the Timberwolves inside during the first half. They slashed, pounded, and rebounded their way against a doughy-soft interior defense.
The offense normalized in the second half. The Blazers finished with just 38 paint points in the game. But for a couple quarters, it was glorious.
Damian Lillard was an assist machine in the first quarter tonight. He had 7 in that frame alone, continually setting up teammates as the defense bent towards him. It was his response to the increasingly-popular “Guard Dame and Nobody Else” schemes opponents are starting to throw at the Blazers. Lillard would finish with 10 dimes on the night, but had his teammates shot better from the arc, he might have had 15.
Two By Two
Portland isn’t known for their team play. Lillard and CJ McCollum get the lion’s share of touches and acclaim. But the Blazers went after the ‘Wolves unbalanced lineups with a coordinated attack.
On offense, the Blazers relied on screen plays more than usual, particularly in the early going. They pulled Minnesota defenders into the play, forcing them to shade over, making three defend two. A quick pass to the open player the defense just left usually yielded a good look from distance. Portland had trouble hitting them, but the execution was there at every point up to the actual miss.
On defense, the Blazers trapped Minnesota ball-handlers, knowing the Timberwolves weren’t going to convert jumpers on their end. They also forced Minnesota into 18 turnovers.
It was smart strategy all around,: targeting specific opponent weaknesses to generate the plays that favor your side, then gambling extra players into those sets.
Old Man Magic
Carmelo Anthony was able to shake and bake his way to 24 points on 7-12 shooting tonight, 8-8 from the foul line. He took advantage of young players who had no idea there was a trunk in play, let alone how much junk was in it.
The ‘Wolves tried throwing doubles at Anthony when he caught in the second half. They knew he was going to shoot it. He still found ways to score. He hit decisive three-pointers in the fourth to turn around Portland’s blooming deficit into a lead. He even played against type, rocketing an incredible pass from the top of the arc to Derrick Jones, Jr. for a dunk with 44 seconds remaining in the game, giving the Blazers what turned out to be the winning bucket.
In the process, Anthony passed Hakeem Olajuwon on the NBA All-Time Scoring List, becoming the 11th highest scorer in the history of the league.
P.S. ‘Melo also played some decent, veteran defense in the fourth.
Nassir Little Excels
Though his 3-7, 6-point performance doesn’t look gaudy in the Boxscore, Nassir Little had another effective night. His defense was good, as usual, but his offense took off against a permissive Minnesota defense. He was aggressive, attacking the rim hard, almost in veteran fashion. It was impressive to see him looking for the best shot instead of just the first shot.
Threes Come Late
The Blazers needed all of the above in the first three quarters, as their faithful three-point shot utterly deserted them. They hit only 6 triples in the first 36 minutes of play, rescued by 6 more hit in the fourth. Lillard miss half a dozen three-point attempts on the evening, Gary Trent, Jr. five.
Sure, the fourth-quarter shooting display was impressive. Anthony hit two, Anfernee Simons matching him with another pair. But even more impressive was Portland’s ability to lead most of the game even when they weren’t hitting deep. That doesn’t happen very often.
Going to Towns
An otherwise routine game turned around in the third period when the Timberwolves went to Karl-Anthony Towns in isolation. He’s not fleet of foot, but his motion towards the bucket was inexorable and, once he started rolling downhill. Portland couldn’t get help for Kanter quickly enough. Towns hitting the occasional three didn’t help, as Kanter had no chance of catching up with those shots in the first place. Towns scored 15 of his 34 in the third period alone, staking his team to a slim lead by the conclusion.
Towns’ scoring started a landslide of Timberwolves paint points, as they finally discovered that Portland had no interior defense to speak of. It was a bad look for the Blazers and a caution that they had better shore up their protection package before the playoffs or most any random opponent will break them down inside to free up open threes and mop the floor with them.
Minnesota ended up winning the points in the paint battle 58-38 even though Portland dominated early.
This is the shadow side of Kanter, of course. Between fouls and lack of defense, the Blazers couldn’t play him down the stretch even though he had been one of their most effective players all game. Fortunately Robert Covington and a collapsing Jones, Jr. managed to stem the tide.
Damian Lillard was held down through most of the evening, but when the game was on the line in the fourth, he once again hit buckets so cold-blooded they might as well be lizards in the freezer. His prowess staggers the imagination. He keeps canning 22-23 foot shots like layups with defenses all over him and victory hanging in the balance. The Blazers have never seen such a clutch player. Watch him and savor every minute.
The Blazers return to the Target Center tomorrow night for a back-to-back rematch with the Timberwolves, beginning at 5:00 PM, Pacific.