The Portland Trail Blazers aren’t expected to compete with nine players out of action and a couple more questionable as they stumble towards the end of their season. But not only did Portland compete against the relatively-healthy Minnesota Timberwolves today, they beat them 107-105.
The Blazers didn’t triumph as much as refuse to let the opponent get away. Then, as the game wound to a close, they exploited their marginal strengths of speed and verticality, simultaneously refusing to let Minnesota ride their own natural advantages of size and talent. Throw in a bit of disinterest (and perhaps presumption) on the opposition side and you have Portland’s first victory against a potential playoffs team since they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers on February 13th, a month and a half ago.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here’s some analysis showing how the Blazers pulled it off.
As has been the case since the Blazers went to their emergency lineup, they tried to foil the opponent’s defense today by getting the ball down the floor before them. Tempo and transition told half of the story in this game. When the Blazers rebounded and/or forced turnovers and ran, they looked good against a fractured, semi-engaged Timberwolves squad. Minnesota had few consistent defenders outside of Rudy Gobert, and Rudy wasn’t going anywhere on the run. Portland prospered in the first period and the early minutes of the third by going quickly, then did it again as the game closed.
Whenever Minnesota buckled down and kept the Blazers in the halfcourt, Portland had little or no answer. It got even worse when the Timberwolves got out on the run themselves. In those moments, the action got away from Portland completely.
The game featured some of each, but in the end, the Blazers scored 25 in transition, Minnesota only 15. Speed and determination won the day. Inability to contain Portland on the run will probably irk the ‘Wolves more than anything else from this outing.
Another hustle stat reared its head over the course of the game: offensive rebounds. It’s shocking that this category was even contested, as the Timberwolves field twin 7-footers in the starting lineup, the Blazers zero. But there was Portland, pasting six offensive boards on the ‘Wolves in the first period alone and continuing hard throughout the balance of the game. Grabbing those rebounds helped keep Minnesota out of transition...an important development, as mentioned above. It also showed the difference in heart between the two teams.
The Blazers managed 11 offensive rebounds in the contest. The Timberwolves had 7.
Points in the Paint
If that wasn’t surprising enough, the Blazers also fared well in the paint through much of the game. That’s not a strong point of Portland’s attack and it certainly shouldn’t have been here.
Minnesota had a huge advantage in buckets right at the rim, but if you look between 3-8 feet, Portland owned them. Trendon Watford, Shaedon Sharpe and company pulled up short or went sideways against the huge T-Wolves defenders, taking advantage of their lack of lateral speed.
It wasn’t all roses. In the middle quarters of the game, the Timberwolves finally woke up, shutting down Portland’s attempts and making a better effort to press their own advantage inside.
But late in the fourth, the lane belonged to Portland again. Shaedon Sharpe darted for layups and fouls against a defense that, again, seemed horribly ground-bound.
The Blazers finished the game with 62 paint points, Minnesota 52. This coming from a team that starts Drew Eubanks, Trendon Watford, and three guards. Wow.
All of the above points were surprising, but the turnover category provided the grand slam of astonishment for Portland. Half of their lineup hasn’t played more than two NBA games in the last six months, let alone any actual games together. Yet the Blazers turned over the ball only 10 times. It’s not like they were playing iso ball through their scorers either. They tallied 29 assists on 43 made buckets. They simply passed well against Minnesota’s defense and prospered.
The Timberwolves never managed that trick, first holding the ball, then trying to cram it into centers that the Blazers were in the business of denying. Portland forced 18 total turnovers, including 12 steals. Matisse Thybulle, Kevin Knox II, and Shaquille Harrison each had 3, Eubanks 2. The aggressive approach led to the fast offense that sustained Portland through the game.
Put Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns on one side of the floor, Drew Eubanks on the other, and there’s no doubt which side 30 out of 30 NBA teams would clamor to be on. Fair enough.
If you want to know how Minnesota’s Twin Towers experiment is going, and why the ‘Wolves aren’t winning big with it, check out the stats for their big men tonight. Towns had 8 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 turnovers in 25 minutes, collecting 5 personal fouls along the way. Gobert added 10 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 assists. That looks like a huge rebounding night, but Portland netted 42 total boards against 47 for Minnesota...barely a disadvantage. And, as we pointed out, the Blazers won the offensive rebounding battle.
The still-recovering Towns moved like a slug, Gobert at his usual glacial pace. The pair got just about every point and rebound their superior size allowed and not a bit more.
Meanwhile Eubanks played his heart out, selling out on defense, throwing picks that his guards had no clue how to use right, and staring down the opponents without giving a single dang inch. He was so far over his head he might as well been at the bottom of a silver mine, but his effort was pure gold. Eubanks had 12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks...which was three more caps than Gobert and Towns got combined.
By the way, we shouldn’t forget Trendon Watford. He hit every seam and daylight opening he could find on his way to 6-8 shooting for 15 points. Watford carried Portland through much of the first half, disallowing the scoreboard separation that has doomed them in so many outings lately.
Yes, Minnesota had an advantage in the frontcourt. On paper, though, their bigs should have had 40 points and 20 rebounds apiece. They weren’t even close. Combining for 18 points and 24 total rebounds against the dilapidated, undersized Blazers was nothing short of a disaster.
Stars for a Day
In the third quarter and early in the fourth, Kevin Knox II stepped in to provide offensive firepower that Portland lacked to that point. All the energy in the world is great, but if you can’t put the ball in the bucket, you’re not winning. Knox hit a three and converted slashing attempts that demonstrated to his teammates how immobile—and ultimately ineffective—the opposing defense could be. He finished the game with 8-15 shooting and 19 points off the bench. That provided the middle link in Portland’s Watford to Knox to Sharpe progression through the four quarters.
Sharpe provided the finishing touches for the trio. With his team in a late-game, narrow-margin dogfight, Portland’s star in waiting drove the ball down the gullet of the ‘Wolves defense, refusing to compromise with jump shots. He converted a critical layup around Gobert late in the fourth. He also drew foul shots when he didn’t get clean shots up.
27 points on 9-19 shooting says something about Sharpe’s outing today, but so do 6 assists (with but a single turnover), 6 rebounds, 9 free throw attempts, and his deep well of late-game poise. When you consider that the rookie didn’t play high-level organized ball at all before arriving in Portland, this kind of outing boggles the mind. Folks, he is good.
Play Like You Want It
It’s not like everything went perfectly for Portland today. The allowed the Timberwolves 42.3% shooting from the arc, 48.1% from the field, and hit only 9-30 three-pointers themselves. But energy, heart, and overall Sharpe-ness led them to a victory nobody expected. Imagining the locker room after the game provides a nice moment in an otherwise-dismal conclusion to the season.
Portland’s road trip continues on Tuesday as they face the Memphis Grizzlies with a 5:00 PM, Pacific start.