Neal’s stellar shooting propels Wolves past Blazers

Gary Neal scored a season-high 27 points off the bench in Minnesota's 121-113 win against Portland on Saturday night, a day after Neal hurt his hand during practice.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Friday afternoon, Gary Neal’s right hand lay under an X-ray machine, his head under a cloud of uncertainty regarding what’s left of his and the Timberwolves’ season.

The following evening, it was tossing up sure shot after sure shot, aiding that campaign’s — and Neal’s –latest shot of alacrity.

"I was a little bit nervous yesterday," said coach and president Flip Saunders, who originally feared his top backup guard had a broken bone in his shooting hand. "He should probably hit his hand before every game if he’s going to shoot like that."

Neal scored a season-high 27 points off the bench in Minnesota’s 121-113 win against Portland on Saturday night — a day after Neal hurt his hand during practice in the same Target Center structure. X-rays taken afterward Friday revealed nothing more than a contusion, and after going through pregame warmups just fine, the 30-year-old shooting guard had his best offensive night since Nov. 10, 2012 when he was playing a niche role for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.

It was the latest and most glaring portrayal of Neal’s contributions since coming to Minnesota last month in the Mo Williams trade. In seven games in Wolves blue and black, he’s averaging 13.9 points on 44.4 percent shooting (35.7 percent from 3-point range) and making 85.2 percent of his free throws.

With Shabazz Muhammad out for the season, Neal has proven a crucial addition to a second unit that’s been unreliable at times. He’s also given Saunders more reason to scorn initial reports he planned to buy out Neal’s contract after exchanging Williams, Troy Daniels and cash considerations for Neal and Miami’s 2019 second-round pick last month.

"We traded for him, and all the ‘experts’ — you guys — thought we were going to buy him out. We weren’t going to buy him out," Saunders told reporters after Neal scored 19 points in Monday’s narrow loss to the Clippers. "We traded for him, thought he was a good player, we thought he might have a future. We wanted to bring him in and let him play with our guys and see how he would blend with our players."

Neal’s latest stop is a short and tenuous one — his contract expires after the season — but Saunders said he has a chance to remain on the roster past this April. It’s also proven a nice change of scenery, Neal said, despite going from a team making a postseason push to one that improved to 14-47 on Saturday.

He wasn’t exactly amped about that proposition when his phone rang Feb. 10.

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"When the trade happened on the 10th, it probably didn’t appear that it would be a good place for me to come," Neal said. "You’re in the playoff race in Charlotte and you’re locked into the rotation there. So right now, with the shots going in, yeah, it’s a great move for me now, but I can’t honestly look at you in the face and say when I heard the news that I was excited about coming to Minnesota, because I didn’t know.

"It was a big question mark."

After spending last season in Milwaukee, Neal struggled to adapt to his role in Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s offense centered primarily on big man Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker. Neal was shooting a career-worst 35.9 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from distance before the Feb. 10 trade. Saunders has made a point of calling sets for Neal and instructing his reserves to get him the ball, though, which has made the Baltimore native and Towson product feel right at home.

"That’s big," Neal said. "As a shooter, I call it ‘the UFO effect.’ Sometimes you run up and down the court five or six times, and you don’t touch the ball, and then you get it with 3 seconds on the shot clock and everybody expects you to make it. That’s a tough position to be in. Flip has put me in a situation where I’m always touching the ball, always involved, and that’s probably why my shooting has been good thus far."

Neal wasn’t the only reason the Wolves snapped a four-game losing streak Saturday and upended the Western Conference’s No. 3 team. Starting two-guard Kevin Martin scored 29 points, Ricky Rubio finished two rebounds short of his second triple-double in three games with 13 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds, and Andrew Wiggins scored 10 of his 18 points in a pivotal third quarter that saw the Wolves outscore the Trail Blazers 30-22 and take an 81-77 lead into the fourth.

Thanks to a talking-to from elder statesman Kevin Garnett following a 15-point loss to lottery-bound Denver on Wednesday, the lack of energy that night was nowhere to be found in front of 19,356 fans on Saturday — the third sellout in five home games since Saunders dealt for Garnett at last month’s trade deadline.

"He’s a mentor for all of us," Rubio said of Garnett, who tied Kevin Willis for fifth place on the all-time games played list by participating in his 1,424th. "You can have one off night you’re not feeling it, but you’ve got to respond the next night. We did it, and we happy."

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Portland (41-20) saw a five-game win streak snapped in its first outing since losing two-guard Wesley Matthews for the season with a torn Achilles.

Deadline acquisition Arron Afflalo filled in with 14 points, and point guard Damian Lillard had a game-high 32, but the Wolves’ defense tightened up just enough in the second half and relied on Neal and Martin’s scoring to keep pace at the other end.

Neal accounted for 10 of Minnesota’s 22 second-quarter points and 17 of its 40 fourth-quarter points, finishing 8 for 11 from the floor and 10 for 13 from the foul stripe. In the final period, he scored 11 straight points before subbing out with 3:38 to go, then checked back in at the 1-minute mark and made 6 of 8 foul-shot attempts to keep the Blazers from coming back like they did in Wednesday’s overtime thriller against the Clippers.

"With ‘Bazz out, we really don’t have a sixth man that can put up points quickly" aside from Neal, Martin said. "G-Neal has worked hard, came in tonight, and all that work seemed to pay off."

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