10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Trail Blazers -4.5, Over/Under: 218.5
With just under two months left in the Regular Season, the race for the Playoffs is heating up, as the Minnesota Timberwolves travel to Portland to face the Trail Blazers at Moda Center in a battle of Northwest Division Rivals. The Timberwolves (38-26, 3rd in Western Conference) have been one of the surprises of the season, as this young and incredibly talented group look to finally be making good on their vast potential. Ironically, all it took was adding the right blend of veteran leadership to get the most out of the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns (20.3 PTS, 54.5% FG, 41.3% 3FG, 12.3 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.5 BLK, 24.6 PER) and Andrew Wiggins (17.7 PTS, 44.3% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 13.1 PER). During the Offseason, Head Coach/General Manager Tom Thibodeau went out of his way to bring as many veterans to the team as possible, acquiring the likes of vested Point Guard Jeff Teague (13.5 PTS, 44.4% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 15.6 PER), longtime Sixth Man dynamo Jamal Crawford (10.2 PTS, 42.0% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 1.1 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 14.5 PER), rugged Forward Taj Gibson (12.5 PTS, 58.0% FG, 7.2 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 16.1 PER), and chief among them All-Star Shooting Guard Jimmy Butler (22.2 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.9 STL, 23.6 PER). While each of them has brought a sense of physicality and leadership to a team in dire need of it, Butler has been everything Minnesota could have asked and more, bringing a defensive intensity that has rubbed off on his younger teammates. The 4-Time All-Star was in the midst of arguably his finest campaign, posting career-highs in a slew of categories, including Field Goal Percentage (47.3%), Two-Point Percentage (50.6%), Effective Field Goal Percentage (51.2%), Free-Throw Percentage (86.5%), and True Shooting Percentage (58.9%), before unfortunately suffering a scary knee injury in the Wolves’ 120-102 loss at the Houston Rockets, fearing that he may have torn his ACL. Thankfully, the injury ended up being a Torn Meniscus, which would sideline the 28-Year Old for Four-to-Six Weeks rather than the remainder of the season. With that said, pay close attention as to how Thibodeau and his Staff bring him along, for while they certainly need him to be healthy for the Postseason, they need to make sure they get there too. Granted, that may sound like hyperbole, but it’s a fact that Minnesota currently finds themselves atop a mess of teams in the Western Conference Playoff Standings, with just two games separating the No. Three Seed (which they own at the moment) and the No. Seven Seed, which is the difference from owning Home Court in the First Round against, say the Denver Nuggets, and hitting the road against either the Rockets or Golden State Warriors in the First Round. Furthermore, their next eight games could ultimately decide where they do indeed fall; this upcoming stretch starting tonight in Portland will see the Wolves battle the Blazers, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, the Warriors, the Washington Wizards, and the San Antonio Spurs, before a rematch with the surging Rockets. This makes their opponent’s Win Percentage over that span at .644, which is quite a Murderer’s Row, particularly without the services of Butler. Since the veteran Wing went down, Minnesota has won two consecutive games, hammering the likes of the Chicago Bulls (122-104), and most recently the Sacramento Kings (118-100) by a combined Thirty-Six Points. In Monday’s affair in Northern California, the visiting side really turned up the pace in the Third Quarter, outscoring the Kings 34-17 in that stanza. The Wolves shot a stellar 51.3% from the Field, including 7-of-16 from beyond the Arc (43.8%), while absolutely OWNING the Charity Stripe, knocking down a staggering 33-of-36 Free-Throw Attempts (91.7%). Six different players cored in double-figures, led by Towns, who poured in Twenty-Six Points on an efficient 9-of-10 Shooting (90.0%), along with Seventeen Rebounds, Four Assists, and a pair of Steals and Blocks, while Teague added another Twenty Points, with eleven of that total coming from the Free-Throw Line.
Meanwhile, the time is now for the Trail Blazers (35-26, 5th in Western Conference) to make a move up the Standings in the Western Conference, as their opponent tonight looks to reconfigure themselves without their leading scorer. Counting themselves as part of the conglomerate of teams stuck in the middle of the Western Conference Playoffs, Portland is starting to get hot at the right time, winning six out of their last seven outings, including four straight. Tonight’s affair with Minnesota will mark the fourth and final meeting with their Northwest Division Rivals this season, with the home team winning each of the previous three encounters. When they last faced each other back on January 24th, it was Terry Stotts’ charges who came away with a 123-114 victory, a shootout in which both teams shot well over 50.0% from the Field, though was ultimately decided from beyond the Arc, where the hosts mercilessly knocked down a ridiculous 17-of-31 Attempts (54.8%), outscoring the visiting side by a decisive Twenty-Seven Points. As has been the case throughout the campaign, the Blazers were carried by their dynamic Backcourt, with Damian Lillard (26.3 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 24.6 PER) and CJ McCollum (21.6 PTS, 44.7% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 17.1 PER) accounting for Fifty-Nine Points on 21-of-37 Shooting (56.8%), including 10-of-16 from Downtown (62.5%), along with Seven Rebounds and Eleven Assists. When we last saw them, Portland essentially put forth the same performance against the woeful Kings, blasting them in a 116-99 victory Tuesday Night at Moda Center. The hosts jumped on the fatigued visitors early (tired from the loss to Minnesota the night before, no doubt), outscoring them 36-26 in the First Quarter and never looked back, shooting a blistering 52.4% from the Field, including 15-of-34 from Three (44.1%), with six different players scoring in double-figures, led by Lillard with Twenty-Six Points on 11-of-19 Shooting (57.9%), while Shabazz Napier (9.3 PTS, 44.0% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 15.4 PER) came off the Bench with Twenty Points on 6-of-7 Shooting (85.7%), including 4-of-5 from long-range (80.0%). Trailing Minnesota by just 1.5 Games in the Division, we can’t emphasize any further just how important it is for these guys to make a move forward will ultimately depend on just how far Lillard and McCollum can take them. Simply put, this is NOT a particularly deep team, and there’s NOT much balance either. The Backcourt Tandem account for 42.4% of Portland’s 105.1 Points per Game (17th Overall), with only one other player averaging in double-figures, and that is Jusuf Kurkic (14.1 PTS, 48.2% FG, 8.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.3 BLK, 17.8 PER), who has been the only dependable threat around the rim for Stotts and Co. The 23-Year Old Bosnian will need to be a factor tonight, particularly against Towns, Gibson, etc. if the Blazers are to make up the ground needed in the Standings; in the previous three meetings with the Timberwolves, Nurkic has averaged 11.3 Points on 58.3% Shooting, along with 5.0 Rebounds in just 22.8 Minutes of Play, though his team are ultimately Minus-18.7 Points when he’s been on the floor. The issue here (and this speaks to the team as a whole), is that under Stotts’ guidance, this continues to be very much a Jump-Shooting Team, that does not enjoy the benefit of fluid ball-movement. Nobody benefits from sharing the basketball more so than Role Players, and in Portland they’re starving, for no team in the league has dished out fewer Assists than these guys, who have logged just 19.1 per Game (30th Overall). And do it continues to be the ongoing Lillard/McCollum Show, with the former in bullish form of late, averaging 31.4 Points on 48.1% shooting, including 35.6% from Three, along with 4.0 Rebounds, and 6.7 Assists in the month of February, with Portland going 6-4 during that span.