Tonight, the Blazers played like the Wolves did on Monday night. Holding the best record in the NBA coming into tonight's contest and sitting atop the NBA standings (which they made sure everyone knew by posting the overall NBA standings on their Facebook page just a few days prior). They came in assuming that they'd steamroll the Wolves like they had done so many times before. The Blazers came in with five-straight wins over the Wolves, winners of 21 of the last 23 meetings including 10 of 11 at the Target Center.
They came in expecting to win, but quickly found themselves down and a short time later found themselves down BIG! The Wolves led by 32 points at one point in this game thanks to...EVERYONE! There wasn't a player out on the court sporting TWolves white that didn't play well in the first half! Nikola dominated Robin Lopez in the paint, Kevin Love let everyone know he was still the NBA's premier power forward, J.J. Barea & Alexey Shved looked like competent guards capable of making plays off the bench, Mbah a Moute & Cunningham attacked the glass and got easy buckets, overall it was just fantastic to watch. I found myself thinking; if the Wolves could play half as well as they did in the first half tonight, they'd be one of the NBA's elite teams.
Unfortunately, as we know, no lead is safe in the NBA and that goes double for the Minnesota Timberwolves. I don't know the exact number of big blown leads these past few seasons in Minnesota, but I can definitively say it has been A LOT.
The Blazers came out in the second half and played much better defensively and all the shots that they were missing in the first half started to go down. Little by little that big lead (which was 26 points at halftime; 69-43) started to shrink. That was thanks in large part to the play of second-year guard Damian Lillard, who is undoubtedly already a top-five point guard in this League. Lillard scored 17 of his 36 points in that third quarter.
With 3:33 to play in the third quarter Joel Freeland made a layup that made it just a 10-point game. The Wolves responded with a 17-8 run to end the third, making it 78-98, a 20-point game after three quarters. Love had 7 of those 17 and Barea hit two three-pointers within the final 40 seconds of the quarter.
The Lillard-led Blazers were relentless and they definitely made this a game down the stretch thanks in large part to their three-point shooting. Lillard hit some insanely difficult threes throughout this game and it was no different in the final period.
Nicolas Batum hit a three-pointer out of a timeout with 46 seconds to play that made it just a five point game. That was the closest that Portland had been since very early in the first quarter. That, however was the last bucket the Blazers made and the Wolves paraded to the free throw line (4-for-4 for Rubio & 2-for-2 for Martin) to finish this one out with the 11-point victory.
Let's take a look at tonight's box score...
Kevin Love was a man on a mission, out to solidify his standing as the NBA's premier power forward and I think it's safe to say--he did just that! Love was just 2 assists shy of a triple-double at halftime! That's right, 8 of his 9 assists came in the first half as did 17 of his points and 11 of his rebounds. The defensive focus certainly shifted to him in that second half, but he still added another 12 points & 4 rebounds. Unfortunately, for the second time this season he falls just short of his first career triple-double, however those 9 assists are a new season-high and tie a career-high. Ricky Rubio said after the game that he was concerned that Love (with all those assists) is trying to take his job. After the 'nutmeg' Rubio had on Nicolas Batum, I think his job is safe for now.
Kevin Martin returned to his early season form after having a dreadful last few outings and of course missing Monday's loss in Boston with a sore knee. He got a lot of easy baskets early and you could see his confidence being rebuilt. He finished with 22 points on 53% shooting.
The bench definitely seems to be making strides and with the impending return of Budinger (likely sometime this month--most likely after Christmas), this is great news! J.J. said after the game that he's finding a rhythm with his shooting and that bodes quite well for the Wolves who have been hoping he'd turn around his early season woes. Dante played through a sprained ankle and finished with 6 points, 7 rebounds and some pretty good defense on his former teammate LaMarcus Aldridge.
Terry Stotts said this before tonight's game...
This should make for a great rematch when these two teams meet again on January 25th in Portland. TWolves will be back in action on Friday night in Los Angeles where they'll take on the Lakers, stay tuned for the preview, until then, thanks for reading and GO WOLVES!