Injuries, injuries, injuries. Taking on the division rival Portland Trail Blazers at the Target Center on Saturday night, the Timberwolves were left without team centerpieces Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love in a season that has once again been defined by roster-depleting injuries. Portland has not experienced such misfortune so far this season and has continued to surge under the leadership of rookie Damian Lillard and young veterans Nicolas Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge. Trailing 79-61 heading into the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves nearly stole the game from the Blazers behind some stellar fourth-quarter shooting from Derrick Williams, who fueled a 26-8 fourth-quarter run that ultimately culminated in a 102-97 defeat.
Nikola Pekovic was virtually unstoppable and recorded 21 points (9-14 FG) and 15 rebounds before leaving the game in the third quarter due to a left hip strain. With injuries keeping both Love and Rubio out of the game, the loss of Pek makes Minnesota extremely vulnerable in nearly all areas of their roster. A potential free agent target for Portland heading into next summer, Pek displayed utter dominance on the low block and continues to make his case for a max contract offer next offseason.
The devastating news surrounding Love’s condition came out before the start of the game, and an MRI has revealed that he re-fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand and a timetable for his return has not yet been set. K-Love had previously fractured the third and fourth metacarpals in the same hand October 17, and is set to see hand specialist Dr. Andy Weiland this week. It is blatantly obvious that Love returned far too early following his initial fractures and it was also extremely evident in his decreases in FG%, 3p%, etc. Love will now have to focus on ensuring that his hand is 100% before attempting another return back to the court, and it could be another month before we see our star back on the court.
What an interesting season this has been for Derrick Williams, as he will likely get a second chance at returning to the starting lineup amid Love’s latest injury. The set of circumstances are especially intriguing when considering the vast improvement that D-Will has displayed since his mediocre start to the season which essentially sent him into Rick Adelman’s doghouse of which Williams had a difficult time getting out of. However, with Pek leaving the game due to injury and Love already out, Williams had a spectacular second half performance in which he scored 18 points in 18 minutes, shooting 6-10 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range. One aspect of Derrick’s game that has been greatly overlooked this season has been his defense, and he has rapidly turned into one of the top defenders on the Pups roster, recording 6 rebounds and 2 steals as well last night. Williams currently holds a PER of 15.64, much-improved from the 12.98 PER he held last season, and is now shooting above league-average from three at 38%. The biggest question will be how he can handle more minutes and increased responsibility, and he his ability to maintain confidence will be a major factor in how he is able to fare until Love rejoins the lineup.
Playing without their 3 core players, the Wolves will now return to a lineup that is very similar to that of the beginning of the season. Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved will have to be major contributors in the offense and the success of the team will heavily rely on defense and passing, as there is no clear first option scorer that is healthy. Shved had an off-night shooting last night, finishing just 1 for 11 from the field despite tallying 7 assists and 3 rebounds in 30 minutes. Although Shved is technically labeled as a rookie, he is in a much different situation than other rookies in the NBA in that he has been playing professionally since his teenage years. The biggest thing that Shved needs to change is his shot selection in the pick-and-roll. He needs to take harder angles when running off picks, because he tends to make his movements more laterally than vertically which allows his defenders to stick with him easier while keeping Shved farther away from the hoop. I believe that Shved is a very good shooter and has yet to gain a rhythm thus far in the NBA, but he must allow himself higher percentage looks instead of settling for contested jump shots when running off screens.
AK-47 and Dante Cunningham each had efficient games and both were +4 on the court in 42 minutes played. Both players have been highly consistent this season and were tremendous pickups in the offseason, being near perfect fits for the Adelman offense. Kirilenko finished with an oh-so-characteristic line of 15 points (7-13 FG), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers. Cunningham added 10 points (5-13 FG), 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks.
JJ Barea got another technical foul and made another critical late-game turnover that solidified Portland’s win, but had a pretty nice game despite his crucial mistakes. In 26 minutes off the bench, Barea finished with 14 points (5-13 FG), 7 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers.
Three Stars of the Game
- Damian Lillard: This was a tough pick, because it was pretty much a toss-up between Lillard-Batum-Matthews for who had the best performance. Lillard was a game-high +16 on the floor, whereas Batum (+1) and Matthews (+7) fell a bit short. The thing that amazes me the most about Lillard is his seeming lack of nerves on the court; he simply looks like a kid playing the game he loves without any worries in the world. The Blazers rising star absolutely terrorized Minnesota’s guards and used his size and explosiveness to dissect the Pups halfcourt defense. A favorite for Rookie of the Year, Lillard has given Blazers fans a reason to be highly optimistic for the next decade, and new GM Neil Olshey truly hit a home run in last summers draft.
- Nicolas Batum: It is performances like these that made Wolves GM David Kahn dish out the $46 million offer sheet last summer that put Portland in a serious pickle. While he had previously been marked by injuries and inconsistency, Batum has enjoyed a career year and was nearly perfect last night against our Pups. In 38 minutes, Batum scored 26 points on 9 of 11 shooting, including 5 of 6 from three. He also recorded 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and only 1 turnover in what was arguably his best offensive game of the season.
- Wesley Matthews: Matthews played remarkably similar to Batum last night, knocking down 5 of his 7 three-point attempts and scoring 26 points in 36 minutes on the floor. As a team, Portland shot 16-24 from beyond the arc and put on a shooting clinic on the road against a division rival.