The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t play a pretty game on Wednesday night, but they made up for lack of style with (mostly) decent effort, tangled together in a close contest for 48 minutes. Damian Lillard powered through a 7-18 shooting night, tallying 27 points to carry his team through a second half in which he was the only operative scorer. Jerami Grant had no offensive problems, putting in 8-14, 4-6 from distance and scoring 26. But the return of Taurean Prince, a super fourth quarter from Anthony Edwards (32 points total), and a whole lot of foul trouble conspired to keep Portland from the win. The Blazers fell 113-106 to a shaky conference rival, falling to 19-18 on the season.
If you missed the action, here’s how it went.
The game started out somewhat sloppy as both teams missed plenty of shots. The Blazers tried to draw Rudy Gobert outside, using Jusuf Nurkic to set screens high. They opened up the middle, but couldn’t convert attempts. The ‘Wolves went right at Anfernee Simons and found a bit of success, but they weren’t setting the world on fire either. Turnovers didn’t help Portland’s cause. Jerami Grant did, though. When all else failed, Portland fed Grant inside and he delivered, either via layup or turn-around. The shots came late in the clock, but they fell.
The tortuously slow pace didn’t add anything to the game’s aesthetic quality, but it did keep the Blazers close on the scoreboard. The tally read 11-9, Timberwolves after six minutes of play. Simons collecting two fouls in than span was the most notable development.
After that midway point, Minnesota got smart and started attacking the basket hard. When the Blazers rebuffed the initial attempt. the ‘Wolves often got a follow up. When they started bending the rim, their scoring took off. Portland’s only answer was to heave threes, none of which came close. With a little over three minutes remaining, the Timberwolves stretched the lead to eight, 19-11.
It only got worse as Portland’s turnovers continued and three-point challenged Minnesota hit a couple deep balls. That took the game from odd to weird. At one point, they had almost doubled up the Blazers, 27-14. Luka Garza, Minnesota’s OTHER center, pasted 11 on Portland in the period. The ‘Wolves shot 3-6 on threes, Portland 2-9. The first strike, by Keon Johnson late, made the score more respectable. A last-second steal and triple at the horn saved them. Minnesota led 29-24 after one.
The Blazers started the second period inverting the offense, going inside to the wings, trying to give Minnesota a dose of their own medicine. Unfortunately every shot got blocked or missed. Once again the Timberwolves proved more successful at it. And again Portland’s shooting guard, this time Sharpe, drew two quick fouls. Within two and a half minutes, Minny’s lead went back to double digits.
Jerami Grant came to the rescue once more, scoring seven in a row, bringing the lead back down to seven. But Minnesota went inside and got it right back on a couple possessions. So Grant hit a three. And then ANOTHER. If layups and short shots wouldn’t do it, the long ball would have to do. Apparently Grant can do anything.
JG Fireworks brought the lead down to five, then after a Minnesota score, Dame hit a three, then Sharpe put in an offensive rebound off of a Lillard miss. Suddenly, and somewhat strangely, the Blazers were back in business. Drew Eubanks followed up with free throws and a baseline hook over Garza, proving that Minnesota isn’t the only team with a surprising back-up center. Even though the defense couldn’t keep up and turnovers continued, Portland kept the ‘Wolves lead within 4-6 points during the closing minutes.
With the Blazers still insistent on getting it inside, the whistles started going Portland’s way. That gave Portland another revenue stream on the scoreboard. They needed it, as Minnesota still found no resistance scoring at the rim themselves. But Portland let it get away on the final possessions of the second quarter the way Minnesota had in the first. Twelve turnovers in the half kept the Blazers from catching up despite the offensive improvement. Minnesota led 60-53 at the half.
Anfernee Simons made his intentions known at the top of the third, scoring at the rim and on a short jumper. Salt in another Grant three and all of a sudden, the Blazers were within two again. When Grant was fouled on a three a couple possessions later, the Blazers were even again.
Portland helped their own cause by devoting every player in uniform to stopping penetration, something they’d been unable to do in the first half. They put four or five players in the lane, blocking and stripping and doing whatever they could to prevent clean shots from coming up. Given Minnesota’s three-point shooting ability, it wasn’t a bad call. We’d have to see whether the ‘Wolves could overcome the trend in the final quarters as they had in the first two.
When Minnesota couldn’t succeed with their small players, they sent the bigs inside. They got a layup for Gobert off a roll. They drew the defense inside, then hit Austin Rivers for an open, and successful, corner three. Portland was making them work, but they weren’t going away.
Neither was Damian Lillard, who started taking over possessions himself, to good effect. He drove the lane, converting a layup on one attempt, drawing fouls on another, then converting again on a third. For all the production, though, the Blazers couldn’t do much better than keeping up with Minnesota. It’s not like the ‘Wolves were playing pretty; Portland just couldn’t stop the leak of points. Staying even was better than 6-10 points back, but the idea was to win. Despite MORE layups from Lillard, Portland wasn’t quite doing it.
But darned if Lillard’s drives didn’t show the way to Sharpe and Nurkic, who also took to the restricted area with authority. When Minnesota tried to overplay Dame, his compatriots stepped up.
Taurean Prince stepped up again at the back end of the third, hitting a three and a cue-ball-english finger roll, pushing the ‘Wolves back to a half-dozen point lead. As the period closed, they showed Portland their quick-study abilities, driving on the Blazers just as they’d been driven upon, collecting the same fouls. Portland’s zone defense failed at the one thing zone defenses are supposed to do: preventing easy penetration. Despite Lillard’s big quarter, Minnesota clawed their way to an 89-85 lead at the end of three.
The fourth quarter began much as the first had, with sloppy play and lots of misses. Lillard hit a three, which was like the rumbling of a volcano. He and Nurkic also ran an nice pick and roll when Minnesota doubled to prevent another potential triple. But the eruption didn’t come early.
Instead the Blazers got whistled for four team fouls in the first 2:30 of the period, including Nurkic collecting his fifth. The Blazers went heavily to the bench, as Simons, Grant, and Nurkic sat: Grant with a bruised thigh, Ant and Nurk with near-DQ’s. The game was shaping up as a Dame-or-nothing affair.
Though Dame didn’t pour in buckets, he did draw fouls, including Prince’s fifth, nerfing Minnesota’s attack potential and evening up the free throw potential for crunch time.
With neither team scoring, neither could escape. Minnesota led 96-95 at the 6:00 point of the period. At that juncture, Chauncey Billups had little choice but to finish with his strongest players. Grant had checked back in a possession before. Simons came in, carrying his five fouls. Nurkic would return right afterwards.
After Portand’s starters came back, Anthony Edwards showed them up, making good on a shot and a pair of free throws on consecutive possessions. That pushed the ‘Wolves up five, 100-95 with 5:00 left. Minnesota overplayed Lillard again, forcing the ball to other players. Hart had already been missing in the fourth. Simons and Nurkic followed suit. Then Edwards scored again, making the lead seven.
When good wasn’t working, lucky had to suffice. Simons hit a drifting, odd one-hander in the lane, on which he was fouled. Converting the free throws made the score 102-98, Minnesota with 4:04 left.
The Blazers got a nifty switcheroo on the next possession, as the refs called a foul on a Gobert layup attempt that they reversed into a clean block upon review. The Blazers earned possession and Lillard converted free throws on the ensuing foul.
They gave it right back on the next play, as Nurkic got whistled for his sixth foul on a Gobert post shot. The Blazers would have to make do with Eubanks for the remainder.
At this point, the game was just ugly, punctuated by fouls, with one shot attempt per five minutes of real time. It made possessions isolated, random, and weird.
How weird? Lillard missed a wide-open corner three, which then turned into a rebound, leading to an Edwards three-point splash. That’s backwards as heck, but there we are.
The next time down the floor for the ‘Wolves, Edwards missed a runner, but Gobert out-rebounded the much-smaller Eubanks. Rudy put it up, drawing a sixth foul on Eubanks. Now Billups had no centers, and barely any power forwards.
Portland’s coach went with scoring, putting in Shaedon Sharpe. Sharpe promptly committed a charge against Prince, Portland’s 16th turnover of the evening. Edwards hit a layup after. Lillard hit a three, but Edwards converted again on the next trip. Portland still couldn’t stop the ‘Wolves. Eventually the clock ran out on their chances to try. When Lillard missed his seventh free throw of the evening with 1:09 remaining and Portland down eight, the outcome was assured.
Stay tuned for analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers travel to Indiana to take on the Pacers on Friday night with a 4:00 PM, Pacific start.