The Portland Trail Blazers spent most of the evening trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by a half-dozen points in their Wednesday night matchup. They kept contact despite foul trouble, a stilted offense, and a serious size disadvantage. A furious third-quarter rally by Damian Lillard made the scoreboard even, setting up Portland for the road win. But neither Lillard nor his compatriots could follow through against determined opposition. The Blazers lost 113-106, dropping to 19-18 on the season.
If you missed the action in what turned out to be a tight game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, read below for the reasons Portland almost won, but ultimately lost, to their conference rivals.
Free Throws Costly
A lot of things went wrong for Portland in this game, but they still might have won it but for 11 missed foul shots in 42 attempts. Damian Lillard missed four, including a couple key ones in the fourth period. Jusuf Nurkic missed three himself. Add just five total points to Portland’s score and they’re right in this game.
It also worked the other way. The Timberwolves normally draw 24 foul shots a night. Tonight they all but matched Portland with 36. Nurkic fouled out. So did Drew Eubanks, creating all kinds of chaos down the stretch. Anfernee Simons had 5 fouls, Shaedon Sharpe four in 28 minutes.
With Portland’s offense not clicking on many cylinders, those extra points became super important. The Blazers didn’t get them from the normally-reliable charity stripe.
Threes No Cure
Portland’s other scoring bastion—the three-point arc—also deserted them tonight. They shot 9-29, 31.0%. Lillard shot 2-9, Simons 1-5, Josh Hart 0-2 (both critical attempts). The Timberwolves, who normally treat three-pointers like booger-laced cupcakes, hit nine of their own, matching Portland. Without that advantage, the Blazers needed to shoot a huge percentage from the field. They only managed 44.0% shooting overall.
Picking on Simons
The Timberwolves have big scoring wings, both in size and production. As such, they painted a target on Anfernee Simons from the opening tip and never really let up. When Minnesota needed a bucket, they posted up Ant on the diagonal, spun, and found themselves at the hoop with a layup. Later in the game, they just drove right past, and/or over, him.
Edwards Finishes Strong
Anthony Edwards had a rough scoring night for three quarters, then unleashed in the fourth. He blew past Portland defenders on the regular and he countered Lillard’s point production when Dame tried to take over the game for his team. Edwards finished with 32 points on 11-26 shooting, adding yet another candidate to the long list of guards the Blazers can’t contain.
Rudy Gobert is a huge concern for any Timbewolves opponent. Portland handled him about like you’d expect. Aside from the occasional roll off of a screen, they kept Nurkic out high on offense, setting picks and shooting threes. This facilitated Portland’s guards, particularly Lillard, scoring in the lane.
On the other end, Portland took the, “La La La!” approach to the 7-footer. When Gobert set screens high, Nurk dropped down darn near into illegal defense territory, daring the ‘Wolves to do anything outside of the lane.
The Blazers got in trouble in the fourth when Nurkic fouled out and they could no longer do either. They got in even bigger trouble when Drew Eubanks followed suit, leaving them looking like VW Beetles against a cement mixer. Gobert scored 17 with 12 rebounds.
But that was only half the center story tonight. Luka Garza, former Trail Blazers Summer League prospect, made Portland rue the day they let him slip through their fingers. He set nice screens, sure. He rebounded, as would be expected. But he also scored 11 points in the first period alone and finished the game with 14 on 5-5 shooting.
Ugh. The Timberwolves aren’t exactly defensive geniuses, but the Blazers couldn’t get out of their own way tonight, committing turnovers early and often. They racked up a dozen in the first half alone, many of them momentum-killers. There was little rhyme or reason to it. The Blazers would look great for two plays, then all of a sudden barf out a pass that wouldn’t get through a grade-school defense. Taurean Prince drew charges, Rudy Gobert and Austin Rivers got steals...at this point you could probably put a traffic cone somewhere on the hardwood and Portland would bonk three passes against it out of bounds. The Blazers finished with 18 turnovers...not bad considering the awful first half, but not great overall.
On a fun note, Jabari Walker is now coming off the bench early, having captured a higher rotation spot than he had earlier in the season. His energy is not only effective, but contagious. His board work is spotless. He could use work on defense, but frankly, the Blazers are making defense look like blindfolded calculus right now. Walker had 6 rebounds in 16 minutes tonight. He’s a player to watch as the season continues. Portland needs big men.
Jerami Grant was brought on to complement Portland’s stars as a third option. Lately, he’s been the star, often the only option that’s working. It’s like the front porch became the load-bearing wall for the house. But what a wall Grant was tonight.
When Portland was dead in the water in the first half, drowning under the weight of their own turnovers and missed threes, Grant took the ball inside and scored like he was in practice. Then, when that wasn’t sufficient, he started stroking threes of his own.
At the 6:00 mark of the second quarter, the Blazers had 38 points. Jerami had 20 of them.
A quad contusion in the third quarter took Grant out of the game for an extended stretch. He didn’t seem to be playing at full strength after. He still finished with 26 points on 8-14 shooting, 4-6 from the arc, with 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
Lillard in the Driver’s Seat
Damian Lillard had a difficult scoring night until the third quarter. He was working on a 1-10, 0-4 performance when he suddenly started commanding the ball, driving to the hoop with it. He converted three layups and got fouled on a fourth. That set him off, along with his teammates.His charges to the hoop encouraged Portland to go inside. That, and the resulting foul shots and/or layups, kept them in the game the rest of the way. Lillard finished with 27 points despite his struggles. It’s a mark of his veteran savvy that, until the end of the game when it was all but forced, he didn’t fight his woes, but found another way to change the game offensively.
Paint by the Numbers
The Blazers did pretty well on the glass tonight, especially considering the opposition. They earned a 12-8 advantage in offensive rebounds. They gave all of it back, and more, by allowing Minnesota 54 points in the paint, against only 38 themselves. Considering that lane scoring was their comeback strategy, those numbers aren’t good.
The Blazers travel to Indiana to take on the Pacers on Friday night with a 4:00 PM, Pacific start.