The Portland Trail Blazers, short approximately all their players, put up a valiant effort against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night. Though they lost 135-121, the eight players on Portland’s side distinguished themselves with fast-tempo play, unselfishness, rebounding, and plenty of moxie.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the contest.
First Quarter Fun
The first period of this game was downright spectacular, given the circumstances. Starting four players whose point averages don’t add up to 20, combined, Portland shot over 50% from the field and 60% from the arc. Nobody outside of a Portland fanatic would recognize any of their names, yet it looked for all the world like they were going to go for a Quintuple Wilt. Watching all those shots fall kinda took you back to a purer, more fun style of basketball viewing. “Can you believe it?!?” Yup. It happened.
The entire first half of this game was a feeling-out process, in which the ‘Wolves asked whether the Blazers were going to give up easily to their superior lineup. For two straight quarters, Portland said, “Hell, no.”
Given that, the next step was supposed to be Minnesota bearing down in the third period, shifting gears and leaving Portland in the dust. They tried. Their third-quarter shooting was torrid. That said, they couldn’t gain any separation. Anfernee Simons put on his superstar beanie and poured in four three-pointers to keep his team in the thick of the action. This was even more amazing when you consider that the Blazers fielded ZERO double-digit scorers (forget 20-point scorers, no double-digit-average players). The ‘Wolves defense had one job. They couldn’t do it. Simons was too good.
Anfernee shot 9-17 on threes, a personal record for makes. He scored 38 on the evening, giving his team a chance in a game they had no real business being in.
Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks may not be household names, but dangit, they set pretty good screens. It’s a joy to watch them line up above the key, with a guard curling around them to penetrate or pass.
Billups’ offense offers options. The Blazers are well-versed in setting that high screen, watching the defense shift attention towards it, then sending a cutter while their heads are turned. The dribbler and cutter look good, but none of it happens without the basic, fundamental screen. Credit to the big guys for doing the dirty work.
Nothing to Lose
One of the joys of watching this version of the Blazers—despite all the imperfections—is that they’re playing like they have nothing to lose. Fielding only 8 players helps with that. Everyone who suits up will play.
The Blazers are giving effort, but not really trying. Their shots look effortless. They don’t hang their heads when they miss a play.
Earlier in the season, the Blazers were carrying everything on their shoulders and producing nothing. Now they’re carrying nothing on their shoulders and producing...something? The entire vibe is different, and that’s ok.
The Big No-No
Billups’ approach to the game no doubt contributes to his young players performing with relative ease, but this game made clear there’s one thing he won’t put up with: letting the opponent score in transition. The coach was relatively sanguine as the Timberwolves ran off runs, converting a half-dozen buckets in a row. But if they scored twice on the run, Billups was up off the bench, calling a timeout. One way to describe his (apparent) philosophy is. “You can play bad, but you can’t play wrong.”
The Blazers did plenty right in this game: 42% shooting from the arc, 47% from the field, rebounding almost a quarter of their own misses. But some ugly trouble spots just couldn’t be disguised. Predictably, most happened on defense.
- Minnesota scored more than 100 points in the first three quarters, which is always big trouble.
- The ‘Wolves had 36 assists on 48 made buckets, which is an obnoxious number. Even worse, the Blazers netted only 5 steals. Their aggressive defense went for naught, and may have even contributed to their woes.
- Without a center to speak of, Portland had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT shot 13-17, scored 36, grabbed 15 rebounds, added 5 assists, and led his team to victory in the decisive fourth period after the Blazers stuck close up to that point.
Besides Simons, four players stood out in various ways for Portland tonight.
Eubanks was a quiet force for most of the evening. Besides his screens, he banged bodies inside, frustrated his Timberwolves counterparts (including drawing an ejection on Malik Beasley), hit 6 of 7 shots, scored 13, and grabbed 8 rebounds in 28 minutes. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t match up with Towns. He did everything but.
Keon Johnson had 15 points on 5-9 shooting, 3-5 from the arc, but his athletic moves and 5 assists did more to distinguish him than the raw scoring. Again...little sparks show through.
Brandon Williams doesn’t care about little sparks. He’s a roving bonfire. He scored 21—second on the team—on 9-14 shooting in 27 minutes.
Watford had 12 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists in 32 minutes. This wasn’t his best game; he was out of position on defense plenty. It was a well-rounded effort, which is a good sign.
Awwww heck...let’s throw in Ben McLemore’s 13 points too, even though he shot a horrific 2-8 from the field. Then we can say that Portland’s bench—which consisted of exactly three players—scored 46 points tonight. I can remember times when their full-power bench unit didn’t accumulate that much.
Portland plays the Timberwolves again Monday night in Minnesota at 5:00 PM, Pacific.