Sunday’s meeting between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Portland Trail Blazers features two teams that could not be more eager to put the 2016 portion of the 2016-17 season behind them.
Much more was expected of a young but talent-rich Timberwolves roster under the tutelage of highly coveted new coach Tom Thibodeau than the 11-22 record produced thus far. But recent signs point to the team’s early season growing pains starting to taper off.
After falling to 6-18 following a 116-108 loss to Golden State on Dec. 11, the Timberwolves have won five of their past nine games, including Friday night’s 116-99 victory over Milwaukee at Target Center.
Minnesota, which has already lost 10 games in which it has led by 10 points or more, was up by as many as 17 points while leading Milwaukee from start to finish.
Andrew Wiggins led the Timberwolves with 31 points and Zach LaVine added 24 with the help of six 3-pointers.
One game after his first career triple-double, Karl-Anthony Towns chipped in his 23rd double-double (18 points, 16 rebounds) of the season, but Shabazz Muhammed provided the spark early on.
A game after the Denver Nuggets limited Minnesota’s bench to eight points, Muhammed came off the bench to score a season-high 22 points in 18 minutes, including 17 in the first half on 6-of-7 shooting from the field.
“I thought he was terrific, I thought he was very, very efficient,” Thibodeau said of Muhammed. “He had some tough matchups, competed defensively. Probably his best game, I thought he did a great job.”
Muhammed, who had been struggling of late, was happy to contribute to the win.
“It felt good to see the ball go in a lot tonight, and hopefully I can carry that on throughout the season,” Muhammed told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Minnesota’s 30 assists on Friday was another positive indicator of a team beginning to gel. In fact, all five starters, and six Timberwolves overall, had at least three assists against the Bucks.
“We’re playing connected,” Wiggins said. “The chemistry is building every day. We know where people are going to be, and we’re playing unselfish, playing together.”
The Trail Blazers started slow a year ago as well but caught fire in the second half to finish fifth in the Western Conference.
Building on that success was expected, but Portland has won just two of its last 13 games and now leads Minnesota by just two games in the race to avoid the Northwest Division cellar.
“It’s been a little disappointing,” Blazers forward Moe Harkless told the Portland Oregonian. “I think we all came in with the expectations of improving and building on what we had last year at the end of the year. We haven’t done that thus far. And it’s obviously still a long season, but we haven’t done that.”
Portland took advantage of nine Spurs turnovers to forge a 32-22 lead after one quarter on Friday night in San Antonio.
The Trail Blazers extended that advantage by as much as 13 in the second quarter before the Spurs began to chip away and eventually pull away in the second half for a 110-94 win.
“We were very good defensively and we moved the ball offensively and we played a great first half,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “San Antonio played well in the second half and shot its 3-pointers really well. We didn’t play up to their level after halftime.”
A trip to Minnesota might have come at just the right time for the Trail Blazers, who fell to 14-21 overall and 5-13 on the road this season.
Portland has won 12 of the last 16 meetings between the teams and leads the all-time series 70-36, including 34-18 in Minneapolis.
All indications are the Trail Blazers will be without Damian Lillard (left ankle sprain) for the fourth straight game. Portland is 5-5 all time without him in his career (1-2 this season).
“I don’t feel comfortable playing at the level I want to be able to play,” Lillard told the Oregonian. “I’m still day to day.”