Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 3/2/13

20130302-122214.jpgSetting the stage:

The million dollar question at this point is “who is in and who is out?” The Timberwolves conclude their western journeySaturday night in Portland and at the time of writing, we don’t know who will be available for the team. Beyond the “normal” group of players that remain out, will Andrei Kirilenko or Nikola Pekovic be ready for Saturday’s game? As soon as we know more, we’ll drop it into the comments section below.

Our Pups come off a loss on Thursday night to the Lakers, which was the team’s fourth loss in a row, and 20th out of their last 24 games. You don’t need a calculator to know that this isn’t very good. The latest losing streak has dropped the team’s record to 20-35. While still in the hunt for the playoffs, the Blazers have also been in a mini free-fall over the past few weeks and are on a 1-8 slide to close out February. Portland is currently 26-31 on the season and four games behind the Rockets for the 8th seed in the conference, with the Lakers also two games ahead of them for that final seed/spot in the playoffs.

Portland has taken care of the Wolves in each of their three prior meetings this season. While the games have been close and enjoyable to watch, the Wolves have found ways to lose. This includes letting Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews do whatever they want from the Blazers backcourt positions.

Player to watch:

Nicolas Batum – Given Stephen Curry’s 54 point explosion at MSG this week, why wouldn’t there be salt in the wound for Pups fans on Saturday night? Kirilenko has been great, probably the team MVP, but he isn’t going to be around in a few years whereas Batum looks like he is really coming into his own this season. I just expect to see a lot of “what could have been” and “imagine if he was with the Wolves” comments and tweets. While putting up strong performances in the first two meetings between the two teams, Batum really struggled in his last meeting with the Wolves, as AK47 was able to shut him down. Batum finished that game with more turnovers (7) than points (4). I expect to see some type of revenge on Saturday night.

Match-up to watch:

Ricky Rubio vs. Damian Lillard. Rubio just missed a triple double on Thursday night against the Lakers and it seems like he has been flirting with one quite a bit lately. The NBA can hand Damian Lillard the Rookie of the Year trophy right now if they really wanted to. He has been phenomenal for the Blazers this season and has not hit the rookie wall at all. There have only been four games to this point in the season in which Lillard has not reached double digits in scoring.

Given that Rubio now seems to be truly healthy, this match-up should be a lot of fun to watch/monitor and should pack the highlight reel.

Predictions:

I don’t see the Wolves pulling this one off, particularly if AK47 and/or Pekovic are out or severely hampered with their nagging injuries.

Final score prediction: Twolves 86, Blazers 101

Three stars of the game predictions:

1. Nicolas Batum
2. Wesley Matthews
3. Ricky Rubio

Let’s go Wolves!

NBA Game Recap: Hornets 99 – Timberwolves 90

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The last time the Wolves won in April was three years ago, three coaches ago, and more players than one would care to remember ago: April 8, 2009. The Pups are 4-13 in their last 17 games, and have lost 5 straight for the first time this season. With any hope of the postseason out the window, it’s time to start rooting for the Jazz to make the playoffs (and thus send the Wolves a 1st round pick in the upcoming draft).

We will keep it brief. Jason Smith started the game by making his first 8 shots. Yep, Jason Smith. Oh, and Chris Kaman started the game making his first 7 shots. At one point, the two Hornet 7 footers were shooting 17-18 against the Wolves. Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of defense being played, particularly in the paint. During one stretch at the end of the second quarter/start of third quarter, the Wolves missed 8 straight shots. It was that kind of game, and it’s been that kind of month. The Wolves will never have problems scoring consistently. They will also never have to worry about wining games with the type of defense that has been on display as of late.

The Wolves lost Saturday nights game in the 3rd quarter, where they were outscored 33-26. After trailing 46-41 at halftime, the Wolves actually held a 3 point lead at one point in the 3rd. The lead didn’t last long though, and the Hornets left the quarter with a 12 point lead on 57% shooting (compared to 45% by MN). The Wolves did get it to within 2 in the 4th, but the Hornets bigs were too much. Never thought I’d say that.. especially against Love and Pekzilla.

Remember the disappointment around the Twin Cities as fans realized that many of games in this lock-out shortened season wouldn’t be on local TV? Well, the Wolves brass has to be happy that once again, League Pass-less fans couldn’t watch another bad loss to a bad team. Then again, the Wolves haven’t done much of late to show that they are a good team.

With all that has been said about the “new look” Wolves, it is easy to forget that this is a roster with many of the same parts as last year. A healthy Ricky Rubio was able to mask many of the deficiencies in this season’s squad. Lets compare this years roster to that of April 6, 2010 (a year and a day ago), when the Wolves faced Phoenix in Minneapolis:
 

 

2010-11

2011-12

 
Kevin Love Kevin Love
Michael Beasley Michael Beasley
Wesley Johnson Wesley Johnson
Nikola Pekovic Nikola Pekovic
Anthony Tolliver Anthony Tolliver
Darko Milicic Darko Milicic
Luke Ridnour Luke Ridnour
Martell Webster Martell Webster
Anthony Randolph Anthony Randolph
Wayne Ellington Wayne Ellington
Jonny Flynn Malcolm Lee
Sebastian Telfair JJ Barea
  Lazar Hayward Brad Miller
Derrick Williams
Ricky Rubio

 
Obviously, the names in bold represent changes in the roster. Looks good, doesn’t it? The Wolves clearly came out on top when it comes to the guards – ditching J-Flynn and Bassy for Ricky, JJ, and Malcolm Lee. Small forward Lazaar Hayward was traded to the Thunder in December, and the Wolves filled in the roster by adding #2 pick Derrick Williams. While we still don’t have a typical 3 man, it is a nice upgrade at forward. We all knew what the Wolves were getting in center Brad Miller: a big man who could teach the younger guys a thing or two about Rick Adelman’s system. No complaints here – it’s safe to say things worked out well with Miller. DAVID KAHN FOR GM OF THE YEAR!

Unfortunately, what Kahn did in the condensed offseason is only half of the story. It is what he did not do that has lead to another winless month of April. Continuity is a great thing in a roster, especially when it is full of talent. The current Wolves lineup is filled with too much potential and not enough effort or purpose.

In the coming weeks, we will be looking at different aspects of the Wolves lineup heading into next season. We will have plenty of time to dive in – it’s going to be another long summer.

NBA Game Recap: Sacramento 116 – Timberwolves 108

The Timberwolves (25-29) traveled to Sacramento on Monday night for their fourth and final meeting against the Kings (18-34). What a difference a few weeks (and injuries) make. The Pups won the first two games of this year’s season series back at the Target Center but lost badly to the Kings 115-99 two weeks ago. For all of you that were busy enjoying the NCAA National Championship: a) we can’t blame you, and b) here’s a few game notes:

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  • In a nice gesture, Rick Adelman gave Brad Miller a surprise start at center as a part of his farewell tour. The 35 year old played 6 of his 14 NBA seasons as a Sacramento King. It is remarkable to recall that the seven foot Miller was a 5’11” point guard in his last year of high school and was not drafted by an NBA team following his successful college career at Purdue University. Miller made the most of his start, scoring 11 points in the first quarter on 4-5 shooting, including 3-3 on three pointers. He also added two rebounds and three assists.
  • Nikola Pekovic returned to the lineup tonight, providing some much-needed relief in the middle. He was his efficient-self on offense, shooting 7-8 for 17 points in just under 20 minutes of play. It will be interesting to see how they use Pek in the remaining games. His ankles have been more than problematic, and at some point it may be better to shut him down rather than risk further injury. With that said, this Wolves’ team is one that would benefit from a strong push into the offseason (we’re used to hearing that, aren’t we?). With tonights loss, our playoff aspirations are dim, but finishing the season strong could go a long way, especially in developing younger players like Malcolm Lee and Derrick Williams.
  • The Kings’ guards proved to be too much for the Pups in the first quarter as Tyreke Evans scored nine points and Isaiah Thomas adding eight points in the first 12 minutes. After one quarter, the Kings lead 33-30.
  • The Wolves’ soft defense was on full-display in the second quarter. Sacramento hit the 50 point mark with 5:30 left in the second quarter.
  • Jimmer Fredette and Terrance Williams were huge for the Kings off the bench. The Jimmer shot the ball wel in the first half before cooling down (19 points in all), and Williams was making plays all over the court, finishing with 12 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
  • Kevin Love hit his 100th three-pointer of the season in the second quarter, but did little else in the first half. His defense was lacking for the third straight game, and his rebounding effort was modest. It is tough to be disappointed, as he has needed to be perfect for this current roster to have a chance at winning. Regardless, K-Love lead the Pups with only three rebounds in the first half, as Minnesota was out-rebounded by the Kings in the game 46-35.
  • Wayne Ellington contributed nine points off the bench in the first half (7 in the second quarter). Unfortunately, that was all she wrote for Wayne – he didn’t score in the second half.
  • The second half was much of the same, with each team taking it’s turn holding the lead briefly before giving it back. The Wolves were able to put together some nice runs, but ultimately could not pull out a victory. Most concerning to the Wolves was the loss of Luke Ridnour late in the third quarter. Ridnour landed on Jimmer Fredette’s foot after driving to the hoop and was in visible pain immediately. Replays indicated an ankle sprain of some sort, but the final diagnosis will probably not be known until Tuesday morning. My take: it looked nasty, and I don’t expect to see Luke for a while.
  • The injury to Ridnour provides the most interesting talker coming out of this game: where do the Wolves look to for extended point guard play? The offense was clearly out of sync for much of the fourth quarter, but Malcolm Lee has given good effort on the defensive end. It is hard to expect a rookie guard to run the offense fluently having logged so little time on court. I expect Lee to be the starter, with Ellington seeing some minutes as his backup.
  • Who would have thought that one of the leagues youngest teams would also be one of the most injured late in the year? We are assuming that Ridnour will miss extended time. JJ Barea seems to be injured at every turn. Our favorite pre-2011 #2 pick (Be-easy) is struggling with an injury to his big toe. Our second favorite pre-2011 #2 pick (Darko) was left at home due to a ‘sore hamstring’ – yep, he’s that far in the doghouse. That leaves us with 5 injured players – NOT counting Pekovic, who played his second game in the last 10 tonight. It’s looking like it will be a struggle just to make it to the finish.
  • A thought: it’s ridiculous how many #2 overall draft picks we have on the roster

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The Wolves, who have been down on their luck as of late, will play 7 of the final 11 games at home. Next up is a matchup against Golden State Wednesday night at the Target Center.

NBA Game Recap: Blazers 119 – Timberwolves 106

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.

NBA Game Recap: Grizzlies 93 – Timberwolves 86

Well.. it’s late in the season and I’m running out of leads. Simply put, it was another one of those games. The game was entertaining by all means, but once again resulted in the opponents sneaking out a victory while the Wolves let another opportunity slip away in the 4th quarter. A lot of comparisons can be drawn between Minnesota and Memphis. The Grizzlies are an opportunistic team with solid interior play and a collection of young talent. What Memphis has that we don’t is a little leadership. The impact of guys like Tony Allen and Zach Randolph on a roster can’t be overstated. Looking at Memphis and the experience that the team gained with last years playoff experience reminds you of what a shame it is that the Rubio-less Wolves will likely miss out on the postseason. Yes, there is always next year, but going into 2012-13 with a few extra games and a whole lot more experience under our belt sure would have been nice.

I don’t have much to report that you haven’t heard by now, but here are a few game notes:

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  • I really enjoyed watching Mike Conley run the point for Memphis. Although he tweaked his ankle in the 2nd quarter, he played a solid all-around game. While only credited for 3 steals, he was all over the court and didn’t allow the Wolves guards to get comfortable at all. What I liked most about his performance was that he didn’t force anything or go outside of his normal game. He took mid-range shots when they were given, but otherwise distributed to the open man. His lefty shot brings me back to Terrell Brandon.. man that guy could hit a mid-range jumper. If only he could have done more than that.
  • Rudy Gay started the game 4-7, helping Memphis to an early lead. He finished the game 7-20. It really didn’t look that bad. I have no idea how he missed so many shots.
  • We had a Brad Miller sighting tonight. Miller sightings usually mean one of two things – either foul trouble or a thin bench. Tonight, it just went to show how far into the dog house Darko has wandered.
  • On a serious note, it was good to see Malcom Lee get some extended minutes. The stat line doesn’t show a whole lot, but in 13 minutes he definitely showed that he is a talented defender who could provide some versatility off the bench. With little hope of the playoffs, I am most looking forward to a) seeing how Lee finishes the season out, b) seeing if Bea-easy can somehow convince Kahn to keep him on the roster (I hope he stays around), and c) seeing how bad it will have to get before Adelman lets Darko! anywhere near the court again.
  • D-Will looked like a rookie again tonight, getting the start and playing 41 minutes. At the rate he was moving, it must have felt like twice that. Yeah yeah, he’s a rookie, and the game will slow down for him. The upcoming summer will be a great one for Williams.
  • I haven’t said a word about Love because he did what he does every night – keep the Wolves in a position to win late in the game. It’s insane that we can be accustomed to 28-11 as just another ‘Love’ type game. I just hope that getting so close to the playoffs doesn’t do him in.. It’s got to be hard to be on the verge and not make it after his first few seasons in MN.

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That’s all for now. You won’t have to wait long for more Wolves action – the team is in Charlotte for a Wednesday night matchup against BISSSSSSSSMAAAAAKKKKK.

Will the Wolves amnesty Darkooo!?

With 16 games left in the regular season, it is about that time when we start to wonder who might be making their last few appearances in a Wolves uniform. Brad Miller has confirmed that he will retire following the season, opting to focus his efforts toward hunting rather than basketball. It’s been a good run for Miller, best known for his role with the Sacramento Kings back in the C-Webb/Vlade/Bibby/Baby-Hedo/Peja years, and most people around the league expected this year to be his farewell tour.

With Miller and his $5.1 million dollar salary coming off the books, the Wolves will gain some much needed cap relief. According to our calculations, Minnesota will have $55.3 million dollars tied to guaranteed contracts next year. The new CBA left this year’s salary cap consistent to the 2010-11 season ($58 million), and early indications are the 2012-13 cap will fall in the same neighborhood.

The Pups did not extend qualifying offers to Michael Beasley ($8.2 MM) or Anthony Randolph ($4.0 MM), but hold control over both players rights due to their status as restricted free agents. The Wolves will likely wait to see the kind of interest each player draws in free agency before a) offering them a contract b) matching an offer sheet the player signs with another club or c) allowing them to leave via free agency.

So, with all of that said, will Darko be back next year? The center has played 59 minutes in the entire month of March, and head coach Rick Adelman recently had this to say about him:

“He hasn’t done anything to really give you a lot of faith that he’s going to go out and do the job. He’s gotten himself out of shape. He hasn’t been as driven as you’d like so when a situation like this happens, it’s time for someone to have their opportunity and get back in there.”

Flip Saunders (the former Wolves, Pistons, and Wizards head coach) added a few thoughts during his weekly appearance on Dan Barreiro’s radio program (100.3 KFAN, Minneapolis):

“The talent that Darko has, if he was totally engaged, he’d be making about $15 million a year instead of $5.. He’s extremely talented.. One of the better players I’ve ever had as far as defensively and pick-and-roll defense, being able to jump out and get back to his own guy. He is long, he can shoot the ball.. He has a lot of the tools.. A lot of times God doesn’t give you the whole package, he only gives you certain pieces of it.

Using the one time amnesty exemption on Darko would give GM David Kahn and the Wolves an additional $5.2 million in 2012-13 and $5.7 million in 2013-14 to play with, so the time could be right to make a move. Clearly, Darko’s inability to get off the bench in late season games while Pek isn’t even with the team is a bit troubling. It would be more troubling if the Wolves continue to stick with a guy that by all appearances (and accounts) has already given up on the season.