The Portland Trail Blazers won’t rest on their laurels, as they aim to extend their lead on their season series against the Minnesota Timberwolves in a rematch tonight. Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons gave Blazers fans a glimpse of their final form, combining for 67 points and took turns willing Portland throughout the contest on Saturday.
Minnesota will be without its top dog Karl-Anthony Towns once more, as he battles a calf injury. The Wolves found ways to put the ball in the hole, with five players scoring 14 or more points.
The Trail Blazers are inching closer to their winning ways of October and early November, as they’ve won three of their last four. They currently sit at No. 6 in the Western Conference standings. While 10-7 in conference play, they are 6-6 at home, and are aiming to get above the .500 mark in that department once more.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have teetered along the Play-In seedings, rising and falling in and out of contention. They are No. 11 in the West, and are dead even both at home and on the road. A win for them will buy more time for Karl-Anthony Towns to rehab and return at 100 percent.
Timberwolves vs. Trail Blazers — Monday, December 12, 7:00 p.m. PT
How to Watch: Root Sports Plus, Bally Sports North, NBA League Pass
Blazers Injuries: Nassir Little (out), Gary Payton II (out)
Timberwolves Injuries: Karl-Anthony Towns (out), Jordan McLaughlin (game-time decision), Taurean Prince (out)
SBN Affiliate: Canis Hoopus
What to Watch For:
- Create More Catch-and-Shoot Opportunities: The Trail Blazers are dead last in the league in catch-and-shoot attempts from the field, at 22.4 attempts per game, yet are the eighth-most efficient ball club in that category. Coach Billups might want to design plays that free up Jusuf Nurkic more inside the key off of the catch, so he can draw help defenders and kick out to shooters on the corners and wing.
- Don’t Overcommit to D’Angelo Russell out of the Pick-and-Roll: D’Angelo Russell loves to be patient when given options. He’ll either keep a defender on his hip while slowly inching his way to his sweet spots, or he will craftily find ways to slither through the defense to open up a midrange jumper. Portland’s best bet to contain Russell — who has scored 54 points in his last two games — is to pressure him high on the ball, go over screens as they have been doing, and have Nurkic or Eubanks play conservative. If the bigs come up too high, Russell — while slo-mo at times — can still blow by bigger defenders and get to the cup. If the bigs sag off too far, he has an entire playground of space to rise up. Staying in the middle ground will keep Russell at bay, and also give the help defense time in case Gobert or Naz Reid get the angle and have an easy deuce at the basket waiting for them. There’s no need to trap unless he catches fire. Gobert scored 24 points on Saturday, and that was one point shy of tying his season high. Discipline and feel will eradicate Minnesota’s best offensive ploy without Karl-Anthony Towns in the lineup.
- Keep Doing What You’re Doing on the Boards: Portland edged out Minnesota 45-28 on the glass. All Blazers players, tall and short, front court and backcourt were doing their part on the boards, batting rebounds out to shooters for second and third opportunities, and containing Rudy Gobert. Whatever it was that catalyzed such verve on the glass must resurface tonight.
- Play Around With the Zone Again: Playing man is perhaps the better option against Minnesota. Portland struggled with Anthony Edwards and Kyle Anderson driving with a purpose and finishing inside. Sprinkling in the 2-3 or 2-1-2 zone periodically will help to give those slashers different looks on defense, and throw them off. Shading the Wolves’ wings baseline will also help to cohesively synchronize the help defense more, but as a result, Blazers players manning the interior will have to watch for cutters running downhill to the middle of the paint off of said baseline drives.
What Others are Saying:
Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian reliably gave his analytical take on round one versus the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. In it, he broke down how Minnesota got the upper hand midway through the contest, and how the Blazers got it together out of a key timeout:
“Damian Lillard was one of those players. After the game, he said the Blazers had allowed Minnesota to execute plays the Blazers had practiced defending, allowing center Rudy Gobert to get open inside or leaving shooters wide-open for three-pointers. It was as if the players, Lillard said, had forgotten everything they were told by coaches before the game.
During that timeout, the players challenged each other in a constructive way,” Fentress noted.
“At that point, you’re either going to do your job or your teammates are going to be looking at you like, ‘Bro, why are you not doing your job?’” Lillard said. “We all just stepped up to the plate and did what we had to do and it showed in the way the game changed.”
Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press chimed in on D’Angelo Russell’s hot streak of late:
“Russell is shot-ready in every instance, many times catching and firing on a moment’s notice. That has led to finding his jumper and, in the same vein, further spacing the Timberwolves’ offense for others,” Frederick said. “Perhaps that mindset occurred a month ago, as Finch suggested. Perhaps it was motivated by the departure of Towns from the lineup, which freed up shots and touches for others.
Whatever the reason, it freed up Russell to play more like himself. That has led to stronger offensive play from the 26-year-old point guard. And the offensive boost seems to have inspired an uptick in his defensive effort. Russell is making a more noticeable effort to get back in transition and make things more difficult for whomever he’s defending in the half-court game.”