The Portland Trail Blazers finally got something close to the defensive slugfest fans had been clamoring for during their 114-112 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The only problem: they left that No. 6-ranked offense somewhere in their hotel rooms. Damian Lillard grinded his way into an efficient 38-point performance and the Blazers had three others score in double-figures. But the inability to defend without fouling and numerous offensive scoring droughts told a sad story in Sunday’s loss.
The loss was especially dispiriting given Portland’s year-long focus against the NBA’s cellar dwellers. Portland was 14-5 against teams below .500 before tonight’s loss to the now 9-30 Wolves. More importantly, it gave Portland a divisional loss and dropped them back to No. 2 in the Northwest behind the Denver Nuggets, also 22-16. Here are some quarter-for-quarter takeaways.
Just one night after combining to score 246 points, the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves found it especially difficult to replicate those offensive fortunes. The familiarity of playing the same team on back-to-back nights, simple missed shots, a let-them-play mentality from the officiating crew — chalk it up to whatever you so please. Just don’t put it on a highlight reel.
Together, the Blazers and Timberwolves hit on 1-of-14 to open the game. Minnesota had a similar focus to last night, playing hound dog defense on Damian Lillard, crowding him and forcing him to make the “smart basketball play.” Last night, it resulted in seven first-quarter assists; this go-round, Portland didn’t have such luck.
The end of the first frame offered more of that give-Dame-the-ball-and-move portion of the Blazers’ playbook. Uncreative it may be, but it is effective. The NBA’s fifth-ranked player in terms of drawing fouls added to that total, and paced all scorers with 10. Paired with energy from the second unit, particularly Nassir Little, and some solid defense, the Blazers trailed by only four heading into the second.
Each of these two teams had isolation, pure bucket-getting specialists to start the second quarter. So, it came as no surprise that there weren’t tons of passes, but there were tons of scores. Anfernee Simons and Carmelo Anthony paved the way, using either their speed or guile to get to their spots and find the net.
Anthony had some special moments in that second quarter. He provided the young Timberwolves a few of his patented “Welcome to the NBA” moments, using his trademark techniques out in the post on offense, and his deceptively-quick swipes of the ball on defense. In typical March Madness champion fashion, he’s averaging 21.2 points on 52-43-93 splits in March, and it appeared he was bound for another special game early on. His second unit synergy with Little (+4.3 in 173 minutes) deserves a sentence. And like a shy introvert, it was at this moment that Rodney Hood decided to welcome himself to the party, too.
By the end of the quarter, Portland had found its offensive footing, Lillard helping track down open shots within Minnesota’s zone defense. Because of it, they sported a 49-47 halftime edge.
It became painfully clear early into the third quarter that Minnesota’s defensive focus would be to mirror Damian Lillard’s every move. Whether it be defensive help at the nail, preventing him from going left for his go-to pull-up, or keeping a big nearby, very little came easy.
The best way to combat that? Bring in another player that defenses fear, and make them pick their choice of poison. The floodgates began to open with Anthony’s return to the game, with his attention getting Gary Trent Jr. and others open along the perimeter. Defensively, Portland was serviceable — or as serviceable as one can be against the No. 23-ranked offense — but had noticeable trouble keeping tabs on Anthony Edwards.
Edwards went down on an awkward fall late in the third, which brought us into the fourth quarter with a question of the hour: could Portland generate enough stops against this Wolves team without their top scorer in the fourth?
Here’s something that’s bound to frustrate Damian Lillard and the boxing aficionados: for the third time in four quarters, the Blazers again opened a quarter slow, effectively putting themselves behind the eight ball to begin the round. Minnesota used a zone, some offensive energy on the glass, and timely buckets to keep the Blazers at arm’s length.
Lillard provided a valiant effort, putting pressure on the Timberwolves’ defense, but a dozen-point lead with a half a quarter to go appeared difficult to about anyone. Portland’s struggle in defending without fouling — see the 39-to-21 free throw disparity — hampered almost any chance the Blazers had of a rally. That became the central theme. And to boot, Edwards returned to inflict some more damage.
With efforts from Lillard, Anthony, Covington, and Trent Jr., the Blazers kept eyes on the television, hitting just enough shots to stay within six or seven, even five, and continued to chip away at the game. The Blazers fell victim to a crucial officiating challenge that rescinded two free throws for Robert Covington, turning it into an offensive foul. And as a result, Portland couldn’t find enough heroics on this Sunday night. A hard fought game it was, and the Wolves had to sweat their way through a close win.
The schedule now flips to allow the Blazers back-to-back home games against the same opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, starting with Tuesday’s game at 7:00 PT on TNT.