With ten players sitting out with injuries, the Portland Trail Blazers came into their game with the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight with all the charm and panache of one of those knock-off tablets that makes you force a smile when receiving it as a Christmas gift. No matter what the logo says, this isn’t going to do much.
As it turned out, this gift was a surprisingly good value. Anfernee Simons scored 38. The no-name cast around him played hard all game long, rebounding and running with abandon, playing unselfishly and far above their heads. Saying the Blazers were good would be a stretch. Their defense was abysmal and they had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 36 on 13-17 shooting with 15 rebounds and 5 assists. But Portland kept the game close to the final minutes against a fairly-full-powered Timberwolves team.
Sadly, “close” is not “ahead”. When Towns went ham in the fourth quarter against their essentially center-less squad, the Blazers fell behind and lost the game 135-121. It was a heck of an effort anyway, an enjoyable affair if offense is your jam.
Do not adjust your sets. The Blazers started CJ Elleby, Keljin Blevins, Keon Johnson. and Drew Eubanks tonight. Their fifth starter, Anfernee Simons, is a strong candidate for Most Improved Player. Keeping that company, he’d better be.
To their credit, the Johnson, Elleby, Eubanks, Blevins, Simons lineup (hereafter known as the JEEBS Squad) did really, really well on offense in the first period. They kept the ball in the middle of the floor, shooting from all ranges: rim to arc. Thanks to Johnson (3-3) and Simons (2-3), Portland started 5-7 from the arc. They also scored on 8 consecutive trips down the floor. It was pretty incredible.
Unfortunately, Portland’s defense was nonexistent. The Timberwolves shot 6-10 from the arc themselves in the first 9 minutes, plus they ran a layup line on the break...a big no-no in Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ defensive system. Every time the Blazers scored, the ‘Wolves scored easier.
The good news: Portland’s shooting kept up through the late-quarter bench shift. (The caveat was, suiting up 8 players effectively eliminated half of that bench shift.) The Blazers finished the period on an 8-0 run, even. But the defense didn’t get any better. Still, Portland led 34-32 after one. That was a major accomplishment, given the circumstances.
Brandon Williams and Ben McLemore started off the second period stroking threes that the Timberwolves felt disinclined to guard, keeping the point pipeline going. Forcing turnovers, grabbing rebounds, and converting both into quick points allowed Portland to build a 7-point lead early in the period.
A run of turnovers foiled Portland’s designs on keeping their edge. You can’t make shots you never get up. The ‘Wolves had no such problem, running back miscues for even more layups. Add a couple threes in the mix, and Portland’s lead disappeared in (literally) seconds.
The Blazers didn’t give up, though. They continued to push the pace, attacking the rim whether or not they had an outright break. This is actually semi-impressive, as teams that expect to lose often devolve into jump-shooting when things start going south. Instead, Portland took a solid half of their attempts right at the cup. That allowed them enough points to overcome their still-spotty defense. Portland led 64-63 at the half.
If the Timberwolves were going to adjust, the start of the third period was the time to prove it. Letting Simons stroke a three-pointer on Portland’s initial possession was not a great sign. If this were Wordle, the “S” in the JEEBS lineup would be the only green letter. Given just one job, the ‘Wolves defense was already blowing it.
But Portland’s success wasn’t limited to distance shooting. Minnesota’s defense continued to be ultra-permissive (read: absent) inside. Give the Blazers credit. They recognized, attacking the rim with abandon.
Simons continued to pour it on thick as the quarter progressed, hitting multiple threes. The Blazers interspersed transition attacks between Simons strikes. Eubanks hit hard inside, either converting shots or banging his body against bigger (and occasionally smaller) ‘Wolves players. He frustrated Malik Beasley enough to draw a head butt from the guard, who was ejected for the act with 7:21 remaining, having scored 16 points on 5-10 shooting.
The game remained a shootout through the balance of the third. Minnesota scored quickly and often; Portland matched them shot for shot, getting offensive-rebound putbacks when they couldn’t. Given the relative position of the teams (and lineups), scoring often and staying even was a win for the Blazers.
Unfortunately, the game got away from Portland in the final two minutes of the third. Minnesota went inside and, instead of staying solid and rebounding, the Blazers reached and fouled. That late run turned an even game into a 109-101 Minnesota lead heading into the fourth.
If the Blazers were going to roll over, facing a deficit in the final period, they had a funny way of showing it. They rattled off 9 points to start the fourth, with Simons and Brandon Williams hitting threes in the process. In a little more than three minutes, Minnesota’s margin had shrunk to one.
At that point Karl-Anthony Towns came alive. All game long, he had been the only real center on the floor. The Blazers didn’t exactly handle him, but his contributions looked better on paper than on the court. He scored a lot, but his team got no real edge from it.
Not so in the fourth. Not only did Towns rain points on Portland’s collective heads, he made a couple of stand-up defensive plays. It appeared as if the Blazers had finally hit an obstacle they couldn’t play their way around. Not only did they lack centers, they lacked players, period. Minnesota was one big push away from snagging the win.
The ‘Wolves didn’t get that push, but they got something almost as good. Just as Minnesota got up by 8, the game shifted to a far slower tempo. Both teams slowed into halfcourt play. Whistles came more frequently. Points came from the foul line, if at all. Had the score been knotted, it wouldn’t have hurt. But the Blazers needed points at the exact time they became precious. It was like taking a cross-country trip at the moment gas prices rose to $5.00 per gallon. The results were just as depressing.
As the lead rose to double digits, Portland’s chances of catching the Timberwolves dwindled. When last-ditch threes failed to fall, the Blazers had no choice but to succumb. It was a gallant effort, but ultimately a fruitless one.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the evening, coming soon!
Portland will remain in the Twin Cities until Monday, when they face these same Timberwolves again at 5:00 PM, Pacific.