The Minnesota Timberwolves (25-28) traveled to Portland to play the Trail Blazers (24-28) at the Rose Garden on Sunday night. The last meeting resulted in a Wolves victory that landed the team in eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race. Since then, the Wolves had lost nine of thirteen games to fall into eleventh place in the West, with the Blazers one-half game behind. A win on Sunday would have produced a sweep of the season series against Portland for the first time since the 2004/2005 season.
The Pups entered the game on the heels of a tough loss at home on Friday against Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics, 100-79. For the 3rd game in a row, the team was without the services of JJ Barea and Michael Beasley, who did not travel with the team for the two game/two night west coast road trip. More importantly, Nikola Pekovic missed yet another game with ankle issues. Including Sunday night, Pek has missed eight of the Wolves previous nine games. While the team managed to stay above water following the loss of Ricky Rubio, Pekovic’s absence is difficult to overlook. The Wolves now hold a 2-6 record in the last 8 games when Pek is on the bench.
Prior to Sunday’s game, Kevin Love had outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge in head-to-head meetings this year. While one game won’t change many opinions when comparing the two, Aldridge had a nice showing in leading the Blazers to the victory. Nothing came easy, but Aldridge shot 10-17 on his way to scoring 26 points. The Wolves used Pekovic to match up against Aldridge In the previous two games this year, a tactic that worked well against Portland’s All-Star. As has so often been the case this year, one can only wonder how much different the outcome would have been with a Wolves roster at full strength.
In the first two games against Portland this year, the Wolves shot 52.2% (12-23) and 56.5% (13-23) respectively from beyond the arc. The Wolves came back to earth in the third game of the season series, shooting 23.8% (5-21) on threes. Additionally, role players like Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster and Wesley Johnson failed to make an impact on the game like they had in past meetings.
As always, Love came to play. He put together a pair of nice games in his hometown this season, including 26 points (11 from the line) and nine rebounds on Sunday night. Derrick Williams had a nice game offensively, but struggled to contain JJ Hickson all night. Williams needs to do his part on the boards, especially in games when Pekovic is out of the lineup.
Luke Ridnour continues to impress as the only true point guard in the lineup. It has been good to see Malcolm Lee get time on the court, but there isn’t any doubt that Luke needs to be on the court for 38-40 minutes for the Wolves to have a chance to win. Ridnour had some nice moments leading the break and hit the array of pull up jumpers that we have become accustomed to.
The turning point of the game came late in the 3rd quarter. In consecutive possessions, Nicolas Batum converted on a four point play (fouled by Wes while shooting) and then blocked a shot on defense which lead to a LaMarcus Aldridge alley-oop. The dunk capped a 13-4 run and an 81-68 lead for Portland. While the game was far from over (3:56 left in the 3rd), it certainly seemed as though the Blazers had complete control of the game.
No matter what you think of him, it’s nice to see Jonny Flynn get some playing time elsewhere after his disastrous stay in MN. Flynn had some nice moments in the game, using his speed to create plays for others. Surprisingly, he did not leave his feet every time he passed the ball, as he was so accustomed to do as a Wolf. After a nice drive to the bucket early in the 4th quarter, Portland play-by-play announcer Mike Barrett said of Flynn, “this kind of quickness is why some guys have felt he can be a Ty Lawson type point guard.” Oh, the irony.
It will be interesting to see how the JJ Hickson experiment pans out in Portland. The power forward/center looked good Sunday night, hounding the boards and picking up some easy buckets underneath. He brought a ton of energy to the Blazers front line and could be a good fit with the team long term.
This matchup should be an interesting one for years to come. After a collection of moves at the trade deadline, Portland now has a roster full of younger players. The team will have some tough decisions coming up this offseason, especially concerning the future of Nicolas Batum. The small forward will have a handful of teams throwing money at him, but the Blazers will have the right to match any offer made to the restricted free agent. Other potential headaches for the Blazers front office to deal with could include JJ Hickson and Jonny Flynn, assuming they both continue to play well.