The Portland Trail Blazers were struggling and short handed when they arrived in Minneapolis for a New Year’s Day matchup with the Timberwolves. They were 7 games below .500 (14-21) and playing the worst defense in the NBA. Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ superstar guard averaging a career-high 27 points per game, was out with an ankle injury. The Wolves, coming off a decisive victory against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, were favored to beat Portland by 6. That proved to be the exact margin of victory, but it was Portland’s; not Minnesota’s. Behind a career night from combo guard C.J. McCollum, the Blazers handed the Wolves one of their most disappointing losses of the season, against strong competition.
In the first quarter, both teams looked out of sorts; sort of how you’d expect a bunch of 20-somethings to look on a basketball floor on New Year’s Day:
The 21 year olds on the Wolves are shooting everything short on New Year’s Day. Probably no relationship there.
— Steve McPherson (@steventurous) January 2, 2017
Portland led much of the opening quarter by 5 to 6 points, but the Wolves cut it to 1 before the break. The game turned hard in Minnesota’s favor in the 2nd Quarter, behind the play of Kris Dunn.
Dunn drove hard from the top around a Cole Aldrich ball screen, flew right into Meyers Leonard under the rim, took the contact and scored. A few possessions later, he played great on-ball defense on a C.J. McCollum drive, leading to a wild miss and transition layup the other direction. (Any good defense on McCollum in this game is noteworthy, because his 43 points on 16-25 shooting often looked like a walk in the park.) He hit a three from the left wing, and then he had one of the more spectacular blocks that a guard will make this year:
Dunn had a nice dunk after diving baseline when Karl-Anthony Towns drew a double team on the opposite block. He checked out of the game with 4:48 left in the 2nd Quarter, with the Wolves leading 38-30.
That was the best 8 minute stretch of Kris Dunn's career. Shut down PDX's guards, 3 huge blocks, an explosive baseline cut/dunk. 7 pts, +12.
— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) January 2, 2017
The starters would build that up to a 49-37 halftime margin. Things were looking good in the new year.
And then the third quarter happened.
The Blazers came out of the half and blitzed the Wolves. On their first possession, Rubio was burned to the hole by Allen Crabbe, leading to a dish-off to Mason Plumlee for an And-1 basket. Next time down, Towns was out of position and couldn’t help on a McCollum pick-and-pop. He buried the jumper over Wiggins, who did his best to help when it wasn’t his assignment. On their next possession, Al-Farouq Aminu took Towns off the dribble for a lay-in that seemed easier than it should’ve been.
When McCollum scored and got fouled, missed his free throw, and then somehow rebounded his own miss to score again, it felt like the game was really slipping away. On the next trip down, he buried another jumper off a double ball screen where KAT didn’t get a hand up. The game was tied, Thibs called timeout, and things never really got better from there.
On offense, neither Towns nor Zach LaVine could get it going last night. LaVine ended with 13 points on 5-12 shooting. KAT had just 11 points on a miserable 3-15 shooting. Rubio missed all 5 of his shot attempts. Wiggins shot pretty well from the field (10-20) but made just 3 of 7 free throws, limiting his point total to 24. He had a poor playmaking night, racking up 5 turnovers compared to just a single assist. Against the league’s worst defense, the Wolves young core turned in one of its worst scoring nights of the season.
Against Rubio and the starters, McCollum simply kept on scoring and the Wolves couldn’t keep up. There was a glimmer of 4th Quarter hope when Dunn was back out there, once again playing superior defense on CJM. He also did this, which was completely ridiculous:
Kris Dunn pic.twitter.com/4hysbg9iGg
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) January 2, 2017
Dunn ended the game with 11 points on 5-7 shooting along with 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks (!) in 21 minutes of +12 basketball.
That was the bright spot.
The not-bright spot was almost everything else. After the game, Thibs talked about the third quarter slide and how the Wolves need to become a “48-minute team.”
“The thing that is concerning is the big half-time leads that we don’t protect and we don’t come out with the urgency and the understanding of playing a full 48 minutes and how important that is and how hard you have to play. The double-team should mean that it’s easy offense; get rid of the ball quickly, hit the first open man in front of you, and trust the pass, let that guy make the play. We have to do better in that area and we didn’t play good defense in the first half or good defense in the second half. Game play mistakes, not staying on the body, not trailing, or making it up.”
He mentioned the “willingness to get rid of the ball quickly” a second time in a not-so-veiled shot at KAT, who has been receiving double teams and trying to make what Thibs calls “the home run pass.” Clearly, Thibs would prefer to see a quick and simple kick-out to initiate more ball movement.
If there are any potential short-cuts to success, it should be clear by now that Thibs will not be taking them, and he will not allow his players to take them. Fans discuss ideas like staggering LaVine and Wiggins more — maybe even starting with LaVine on the bench. That isn’t going to happen. Sometimes Cole Aldrich plays well and seems to deserve more than 12 minutes per game. But until Gorgui and KAT can learn how to play better defense themselves, they’ll get 36 minutes per game of continued training. Ricky Rubio has shown that he can orchestrate good offense if he’s handed the ball and given some leash. But Ricky Rubio Improv is not this team’s long-term system, so there won’t be time wasted on it now in the interest of short-term wins.
If someone like George Karl were coaching this roster, they might have a .500 record and be a league pass favorite for its quirky gimmicks. But it also might not learn anything and at least one of the “big three” would probably be banished on the end of the bench if not traded.
The trade deadline is on February 23rd, a little less than two months away. At that time, it’s possible that the Wolves will make a trade to get better by adding a veteran, or to get worse by trading away Rubio and completing the last detail of their rebuild. But until that time comes, I expect to see more of the same — heavy minutes for the young starters with constant attention to details. Some nights things will click like they did against the Bucks and other nights they’ll fall apart like they did against the Blazers.
They play at Philly tomorrow night against the Sixers, a team that knows a thing or two about patience and process-trusting.