It's going to give the Blazers a lot of advantages in this one. The last time these two teams met, Damian Lillard & Wesley Matthews absolutely destroyed the Wolves and simply couldn't miss from the field.
Without their two stars (who haven't played well this season), the Blazers have a great chance of continuing their dominance vs. the Wolves. Minnesota has been looking to beat the Blazers for just the third time in five years! The Wolves have dropped 18 of the last 20 meetings vs. Portland, with one win come last season at the Target Center on March 7th (106-94).
The TWolves had an awful Wednesday night in Utah in what was without a doubt--the worst outing of the season for the Wolves. They came back on Thursday night with a huge bounce back win over the Nuggets in Denver, basically in a game they were supposed to lose. Here's hoping that some of that fourth quarter energy and fight that the Love/Rubio-less Wolves showed led by Barea & Ridnour, there's no reason to think we can't take down these division rivals.
The Blazers are much better than most assumed they would be this season. A lot of that can be attributed to Damian Lillard's almost seamless transition to the NBA. He's averaging 18.2 a game and has teams like Charlotte & Sacramento kicking themselves for passing on him in last summer's draft.
Not just that, but Nicolas Batum & J.J. Hickson have shown some improved play (especially J.J.) and become major contributors to a starting unit whose lowest point per game total is 12.5 for Hickson! Looking at the kind of all-around games Batum has every night, it's reminiscent of Andrei Kirilenko during his all-star days.
The one major weakness the Wolves will look to take advantage of is the Trailblazer bench. I honestly don't believe there's a worse second unit (on paper) in the NBA! Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic, Victor Claver, Jared Jeffries and Meyers Leonard. I was actually reading an article published by a Blazer blogger who said that Minnesota's bench is equally bad! I'll take J.J. Barea, Lazar Hayward, Derrick Williams, Dante Cunningham, Lou Amundson any day of the week (I refuse to list Greg Stiemsma, because I honestly believe he's the worst player on this team and has no business in the NBA--doesn't rebound or even make an effort to, is known as this great shot blocker but often times plays limited minutes and is constantly in foul trouble, never looks very energized on the court and is constantly trying to play "The Enforcer" on the court--I really hope someone knocks him out one of these times).
Anyway, done with the Stiemsma rant, let's take a look at the injury report...
MINNESOTA: Ricky Rubio will miss his fourth straight game with back spasms. It doesn't sound as though it's anything more serious, remember Andrei missed a string of four games earlier this season with back spasms, he returned and has now played in twelve straight games. Kevin Love is also out with that sprained finger he suffered in the third quarter of Thursday's game in Denver. Minnesota doesn't play again (after tonight) until Tuesday (1/8) in a game I fully expect both of these guys to be available for. Brandon Roy, Malcolm Lee and Chase Budinger are all still out with knee injuries, surgeries or rehabs.
PORTLAND: The Blazers are without Elliot Williams who tore his achilles during training camp and will now miss the entire season. Meyers Leonard is listed as questionable for this one, however from what I've heard, it's sounding very likely that he won't be playing as he continues to nurse an ankle injury. The Blazers currently have no timetable for his return. With Leonard out, expect rookie Joel Freeland to get the backup minutes behind Hickson at center.
How many TWolves fans will be watching this game (LIVE) with me? I assume a lot of you have this one set for DVR as the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers will be squaring off in Lambeau Field for the first round of the NFL Playoffs. I'll be watching the Wolves game tonight and check in every once and a while with the Vikings-Packers score.
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven't played since Thursday and should be fairly rested for this one--the Blazers however, played last night in Memphis vs. the Grizzlies. Memphis was playing without Zach Randolph and the Blazers were able to keep it close all night long, Rudy Gay missed a jumper at the top of the key as time expired to give Portland the 86-84 win.
With the Blazers playing in back-to-back nights, you've got to assume they'll look to that bench a bit more, something that would certainly play into the Timberwolves' favor. You've got to assume that some of the Blazers players will have some tired legs late in this one, opening the door for another second half rally and narrow win for the Wolves.
The X-Factors for the Wolves tonight are two players and one simple team goal...
- J.J. Barea. When J.J. is one, is hitting shots, breaking down the defense with his slashing and either finishing difficult lay ins a the rim or dishing out to a wide open teammate, Barea can definitely make things happen on the court. Tonight, without Love or Rubio, the Wolves desperately need another big night from J.J. and have him be that spark off the bench to 'rally the troops'.
- Nikola Pekovic. The Blazers start 6'9" Hickson at center (but will definitely have Aldridge covering Pek). The simple fact, is that the Blazers don't have anyone that can stop him in the paint. They can elect to have LaMarcus cover him and try to combat his strength and size with length and athleticism, but Pekovic has shown that not too much can bother him when he's got his man pinned down in the paint. Expect plenty of double teams.
- With plenty of double downs on Nikola, Pek needs to make the pass back out of the post and find the open man. All that will be for not, if the Wolves don't start hitting shots. Simple as that: hit your shots! This Blazer team is a high-octane offense and if we want a chance in this one, guys like Pek, Shved, AK, Luke & Barea need to turn in dynamite offensive performances.
Let's take a look at the probable starting lineups in this one...
Luke Ridnour (11.3ppg, 4.2apg, 1.2spg)
Alexey Shved (11.1ppg, 2.8rpg, 4.6apg)
Andrei (13.3ppg, 6.8rpg, 3.1apg, 1.5spg, 1.5bpg)
Dante Cunningham (7.1ppg, 5.1rpg, 0.9spg)
Nikola Pekovic (15.7ppg, 8.1rpg, 0.9bpg)
Damian Lillard (18.2ppg, 3.4rpg, 6.4apg, 1spg)
Wesley Matthews (14.8ppg, 2.5apg, 1.6spg)
Batum (16ppg, 5.6rpg, 4.4apg, 1.6spg, 1.1bpg)
LaMarcus Aldridge (20.6ppg, 8.4rpg, 1.3bpg)
J.J. Hickson (12.5ppg, 10.8rpg, 0.7bpg)
There are plenty of skeptics out there that'll say the Wolves will win this one, because Kevin Love isn't playing and the Wolves play better when he's not on the court. I'm done arguing with people like that.
Ultimately the Wolves are back (somewhat) where they started the season (minus Roy, Lee & Budinger). That means that Andrei Kirilenko needs to turn in a big game--the type of games he had prior to Kevin returning. Same goes for Pekovic. Pekovic is a very consistent force in the paint, however his success tonight will be directly correlated to whether or not the Wolves hit their three-point and mid-range tries. Without that threat from outside, the Blazers will pack the paint and force the Wolves' wings to hit shots.
That's all for now, as I said before, I'll be watching this one in it's entirety and have a fully gameday recap late tonight. Tipoff is set for 7pmCT, thanks for reading HOWL and GO WOLVES (& VIKINGS)!