The Portland Trail Blazers finished the game sizzling, as Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons combined for 67 points to overthrow the Minnesota Timberwolves home on Saturday evening. In a game that saw exclusively male defenses on both sides, each team had their share of ups and downs, as victory came down to the wire.
Five Blazers scored in double figures, and their bench curtain called the night with a +38 plus/minus. They ruled the glass from whistle to whistle and took advantage of their opportunities at the charity strip with efficiency.
Wolves were without their superstar player at Karl-Anthony Towns and felt his absence, although their current big three in Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Rudy Gobert all scored 24 or more points. Only three of their players scored buckets from range, an archaic air for a team that just a season ago was the league’s most formidable offensive team by numbers.
If you haven’t done so yet, check out our instant recap by Ryan Rosbackwhich goes into detail about tonights play-by-play contest.
Damian Lillard’s fingerprints
Some of its impact appears on the stat sheet. Some of them don’t. Nevertheless, Damian Lillard totally dominated the first quarter. He played all 12 minutes – the only player from either team to do so – and had a high usage rate. Whether he was dishing out lead passes to Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks for easy points in the pick-and-roll paint, or weaving through the defense and tapping into his layup package, Lillard was the primary facilitator of the attack. He had the highest plus/minus of any Blazers starter and shot foul after foul, qualifying for the charity stripe seven times. He is averaging 8.1 attempts for the season. His aggression was contagious and reflected in the Blazers’ tenacity on the boards.
Body the Boards Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic had seven rebounds after eight minutes of play. That was more than the entire Timberwolves team, which had five. For the first quarter, they won the Glass Battle 15-8, nearly doubling Minnesota. There was a streak where the Blazers picked up back-to-back offensive rebounds, translating such a workaholic effort into a third-chance opportunity that Trendon Watford converted, with a smooth layup high on the glass.
In the second, the Blazers got three offensive rebounds on three straight possessions, which led to six points on the scoreboard. Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch took Rudy Gobert out for a few moments, before Nurkic went on a rampage, forcing his hand to put him back in the game, which did no good. Why did Portland do so well on the glass? For one, the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging 8.2 rebounds on the season, took away one of Minnesota’s best glass eaters. Other than that, Portland just looked more energized and tenacious, as they channeled their inner Tyson Chandler, picking up plenty of rebounds they couldn’t grab on the offensive end for extra opportunities.
Anfernate being Anfernate
If Lillard and Simons led a relay, they would have had the most seamless witness transfer from the first leg to the second. Simons came in to do what he’s been doing all season, which is to get really hot. He had 10, yes 10 points in the first four minutes of the second and was doing it in different ways. The screens usually came from the weak side of the floor, which Simons used, curling up on the pick when off the ball to free himself for a look off the top of the key, or running his defender into the pick when he was on the ball. .
Second half defense
As usual, there was too much air space given to the wings of opposing teams, regarding the Blazers. Both teams were on all halftime screens. For Minnesota, Gobert would sit on the free throw line, or at most, top of the key. Simons would exploit this by coming off screen and crossing or using a finesse move, gaining head speed downhill and finishing on the taller defender. Wolves also opted to keep McDaniels over Lillard. Following Harts two three in the first half, Kyle Anderson refrained from sagging like he did in the first 24 minutes of play.
For Portland, they played directly Russell and Edwards. Bad news. The two combined for three 3-pointers and a fourth long ball that was one foot away from being counted as a trey, to set the tone for the third. Rip City’s defensive intensity picked up later in the quarter as they went 14-3 to finish third and take a two-point lead.
Restless night for Shaedon
Shaedon Sharpe pulled off a highlight dunk, but his night was uneven otherwise. Another flagship dunk went south as he took off too early and missed the attempt. Later in the game he was called up for a trip. A few times he jumped too early for the rebound and was sent off waving. He had five points, four rebounds and a 1:1 assist-to-rotation ratio, though to his credit he had the biggest plus/minus on the team with a +18 effort.
The dualistic impact of Rudy Gobert
Throughout the contest, Rudy Gobert hasn’t looked like the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year he usually looks like. On the defensive side, he let Eubanks dive all over him and allowed the Blazers to take him into the “baja”. Additionally, a crucial offensive foul on an illegal screen robbed his team of any finishing push they had hoped to execute.
However, in attack, Gobert was a threat. This is what happens when you overcommit to the ball handler in option games. Granted, Russell had just finished a 30-point performance a game before, with 75% shooting, so the Blazers likely entered the game with the mindset to show the pick hard. Still, Russell is known as a patient playmaker off the screen and the roll, who likes to keep the defender on his hip and buy enough time to get up for a 15-foot float or jump.
Regardless, Gobert was found repeatedly for easy lobs and dunks, leading to his 24 points on the 9-11 shot, a whopping number even by his ultra-efficient standards. It’s rare to see, but Gobert’s impact was felt much more in attack than defense tonight, which is one of the main reasons his side didn’t claim victory.
Team effort brings it home
Simple and clear, the Blazers started to move the ball more in the fourth. More players got their hands on the rock, and that correlated with the outcome of the game. Six Blazers scored in the quarter and the defense led the offense, stopping all of Minnesota’s final efforts to upset Portland. Jerami Grant should also be applauded for his defensive efforts. He got saves on Anthony Edwards when it mattered most.
It was a ruthless win against a tough Minnesota Timberwolves team. It was good for morale, especially after their toughest loss of the season against the Denver nuggets a game before. Next on the itinerary is a rematch with Wolves at 7:00 p.m. Pacific Monday.