For some reason, the 14-win Timberwolves have found a relatively strange level of success against the 41-win Portland Trail Blazers this season. They managed to beat the Blazers back in December amidst the flurry of injuries to Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin, ending what was a 6-game losing streak.
While injuries and losing streaks were also there for last night’s win over the Trail Blazers, the situation was different this time around. Rubio, Martin, and Pekovic are back and playing. Andrew Wiggins, who is still discovering what he is (really) good at, is further along in his development. Kevin Garnett is here now.
None of this is to say the Wolves came into the game projected as favorites, but it would explain the high level of confidence they displayed as early as the opening tipoff.
The Wolves would need all the confidence they could muster, too, especially with the 3-point onslaught the Blazers showcased, torching the Wolves on a 14-27 effort from deep. Part of this came because the Wolves inside duo of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett has turned into a surprisingly troublesome duo thus far for opposing paint attackers. This got them out to the 3-point line, where the Wolves’ backcourt defense more or less did not show up. Add the minutes restrictions to both Garnett and Pekovic and it should help explain Portland’s hot shooting night from all over the floor.
Ultimately, the offense made up for any of the issues going on defensively for the Wolves, and they received contributions from several people.
Early on, it was Nikola Pekovic keeping the Wolves in the game. He physically dominated Robin Lopez early, and was finally making those bunny shots he’s struggled with for much of the year. That first quarter was probably the best quarter he’s played in a number of months.
Andrew Wiggins, on the other hand, kept his contributions up throughout the majority of the game, finishing with 18 points. One of the most exciting parts of Wiggins’ game is his ability to create off the dribble, something he really got to showcase during his time without Ricky Rubio. With Rubio back in the lineup, Wiggins is learning that if you run, the ball will come to you in a place you can score. That was apparent on a string of plays last night, especially in the 3rd quarter.
Ther was some help off the bench too, and the best bench contributor was newcomer Gary Neal, who finished the game with 27 points on 8-10 shooting from the field. Thus far, Neal has had to do a bit more than he probably expected off the bench for the Wolves. He’s had to more or less instigate his own offense when Ricky Rubio would sit on the bench (a somewhat common occurrence so far). Last night, Neal played equally well with the ball as he did playing off the ball.
But all this comes back to the Wolves’ most important player. Ricky Rubio notched his 5th straight double double on a 13 point, 8 rebound and 15 assist evening. His slow shooting start didn’t stop him from eventually hittting the biggest shot of the night for the Wolves.
“I’ve been working on that shot,” Rubio said in the locker room after the game. “Great situation in a great moment and I took it.”
With Rubio’s shooting, confidence has always been a factor. That shot was the Wolves’ high level of confidence coming into tonight’s game in a nutshell. Whether it’s the added voice of a former superstar, or the healthy ankles (knocks on wood) of a rising star, fun times seem to be on the upswing in Minnesota.
In Portland’s defense, the loss of Wes Matthews for the season had to have played a factor in their energy level and confidence. His respect around the league was apparent, even in the Woves locker room.
“I think Wes is one of the underrated shooting guards in this league,” Gary Neal said after the game. “He does it all. He can defend, he can post up, he can knock down the open 3. They’re definitely going to miss him.”
The Wolves had no luck early this season, and it dashed any chances of a surprise playoff push. At 41-20, the Blazers are, essentially, already locks for the playoffs. The trade for Aaron Afflalo will help, and did last night against the Blazers, but losing their team’s best two-way player for the season will make it hard to make any legitimate shot at a championship. Even in the regular season, that can mess with a team’s confidence.
The Wolves aren’t playing for playoff position, but they are playing for respect. The last time the Wolves beat the Blazers, things were awful, and injuries were everywhere. Lately, things have been good for the Wolves, and the team’s high energy is turning into wins against good teams. Next year is when the wins might mean something, but for now, they’re building something. It seems to be something good.