With no Love and no Rubio there’s no excuse for the Blazers to not finish this trip 3-1
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) January 5, 2013
The above is certainly going to be the popular sentiment coming into Saturday’s game between the Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis, the final game of this four-game trip.
I wrote a little about how it can probably be expected of Portland to have a let down after a big win, but to allow the Blazers to get away with it twice in one week seems to be a little much. Not to mention the fact that their opponent is without two of their most important players.
The beauty of NBA basketball is that the games themselves have to be played. Prior to this season’s actually beginning, the Blazers looked to be one of the weakest teams in the Western Conference. Their Saturday opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, looked to be the opposite. Portland was, and still is, a young, inexperienced team with limited depth and an All-Star who has a tendency to under preform and could very well be headed out the door anyway. Up north, the T-Wolves were a team with almost unlimited potential, a deep bench that was made deeper by some shrewd off-season moves, and an Olympic Gold Medalist who became the toast of the league because he “played the game the right way.”
And here we are in January of 2013. Minnesota’s depth has basically disappeared because a few of their new acquisitions have been injured (Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy), Ricky Rubio’s comeback has yet to really get off the ground, and Kevin Love is being sidelined again with a re-fracture of his third metacarpal, an injury that could require surgery and is in no way an indication that Love’s return after five weeks and not eight was too soon.
As for Portland, the Blazers are two games over .500, looking to get to three games up in the win column for the first time in the season, have been basically unbeatable in close games, and with almost nothing for a bench have only posted one of the top starting lineups in the NBA.
On paper, the path through 2012-13 for both of these teams was supposed to be markedly different. But, as I said, the games are played on the hardwood, not on paper.
If Portland can avoid another big letdown after another big win, they’ll take one more important step in the direction of proving that they’re for real, and that most of the projections were wrong.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Timberwovles Starting 5: PG Luke Ridnour, SG Alexey Shved, SF Andrei Kirilenko, PF Derrick Williams, C Nikola Pekovic
How can Portland beat Minnesota? To answer that, look no further than the box score from November 23rd of 2012, the first time these two teams faced off. On that night, the Blazers got 30 points from Wesley Matthews and 28 points from Damian Lillard, with both guys going off from three. Wes was an outstanding 5-of-6; Damian was nearly as good, shooting 4-of-8.
During last night’s broadcast in Memphis, Mike Rice made a keen observation. He said that Portland can play defense, but they can’t win games on their defense only (something Memphis can and does do). To win games on anything like a consistent basis, the Blazers need to score, and to score, they need to hit threes.
With Kevin Love out, Portland is going to want to go inside on Minnesota. They should. But if they want to get the better of this Timberwolves team, they have to make some threes. Shooting well from deep not only takes a ton of pressure off LaMarcus Aldridge, it also opens up the lane for Lillard, Matthews, and Nicolas Batum to attack the rim. The Blazers will probably work inside out on Saturday, but they need to be sure their outside game gets going if they want to win.
What to Watch For
- How Portland starts the game. In Toronto, Portland got down double figures in the first five minutes of the game. They absolutely cannot let that happen again. That means playing smart with the basketball, running their offense, and not letting Minnesota get easy looks to start the game. The T-Wolves are already two strikes down prior to the start of Saturday’s game playing with Rubio and Love, but in the NBA, when teams are backed against the wall, they usually play their absolute best. If the Blazers expect Minnesota to beat themselves Saturday, they will definitely not win.
- Defense. Minnesota is not the defensive team that Memphis is. Portland is going to get looks. It might not be a shoot out like the Knicks game was, but it’s not going to be a grinder like the Grizzlies game was either. If the Blazers can bring a good defensive effort right out of the gate, they’ll put themselves in a strong position to win this game.
- LaMarcus Aldridge. Kevin Love is out Saturday; Zach Randolph was out Friday. LA was going to have a tough back-to-back against two of the his chief All-Star Game rivals. He didn’t exactly go off in Memphis, nobody did really. His match-up Saturday is better than it was Friday. Expect LA to get a lot of looks, and probably a decent amount of points.