Just a game away from the season sweep of the Trail Blazers, the Timberwolves faltered on Sunday night in Portland, and really, it was no surprise.
After defeating Portland 122-10 on March 3 and 106-94 on March 7, the Timberwolves fell 119-106 in their final meeting with the Trail Blazers, but the two teams that faced off Sunday night were a far cry from those competing just three weeks ago. Since then, the Timberwolves have lost Ricky Rubio for the season to an ACL injury, and Michael Beasley, J.J. Barea and Nikola Pekovic have all missed significant time.
And in contrast to the Timberwolves’ forced changes, the Trail Blazers’ evolution came out of choice. At the trade deadline, they dealt center Marcus Camby and small forward Gerald Wallace, cut center Greg Oden and fired long-time coach Nate McMillan. Since then, Portland has gone 5-5, while the Timberwolves have slogged through a 3-7 record.
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On March 7, after Portland traveled to Minneapolis for the teams’ previous meeting, the Trail Blazers were 20-23, last in the Northwest Division and 11th in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves sat tied for eighth in the West with a 21-19 record, good for third in the Northwest Division. That night, Pekovic was injured, but Beasley, Barea and Rubio combined for 17 points and 11 rebounds. Camby and Wallace, both in the starting lineup, finished with a total of 15 points and 11 rebounds.
In a box score like that one, neither team’s missing players would appear to have an edge. But Wallace and Camby both were posting worse numbers this season than in the past, while Pekovic and Rubio, at least, were enjoying breakout years. And no matter what the numbers, it’s always easier to make a move than for a team’s hand to be forced, as was the Timberwolves’.
On Sunday, Portland passed Minnesota in the Western Conference standings, taking possession of 11th place and pushing the Timberwolves to 12th. And with the performance the Trail Blazers put on, they deserved it. Each of their starters finished with double-figure scoring, and two had more than 20 points: LaMarcus Aldridge (26) and Nicolas Batum (24). For once, Kevin Love had to share the recognition of being the game’s highest scorer, as his 26 points were only enough to match the Trail Blazers’ power forward.
“It’s all on us,” Timberwolves’ coach Rick Adelman said of his team’s poor defense. “We’ve talked about it all year long. When things start going tough, you cave in there. You’re thinking about what you’re doing at the other end. You can do that.”
Despite losing, three Timberwolves finished with more than 20 points — in addition to Love’s 26, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour each had 21 — and the team’s 106 points marked a return to the high scoring that the team began to exhibit in March.
“They play hard,” Portland’s Wesley Matthews said. “That’s one thing you can count on when you play the Timberwolves, is that they’re going to play hard… and they can shoot the ball. Anytime they can shoot the ball, they’re never out of the game.”
The problem, though, was that in contrast to Portland’s starters, who provided a solid front, two of the Timberwolves’ starting five had fewer than 10 points. In addition, Adelman was forced to use players like Anthony Randolph and Malcolm Lee, who have seen action in just 30 combined games this year.
Neither of these teams is a playoff lock, or even a likely postseason candidate. But while Portland has suspected that since long before its moves, the Timberwolves were once on the cusp. Minnesota failed to sweep the season series on Sunday, and it lost even more ground in the conference standings. Those are both difficult developments to embrace, but perhaps a more painful aspect of the game was to see a team for whom lineup changes have actually been an asset. That had to sting just a bit.
When asked how different Portland looked from the last time his team faced them, Adelman was blunt.
“They made a lot of shots tonight,” Adelman said. “I have no idea.”
He paused, the thought finished. But after a breath, that wasn’t all the coach had to say.
“Ours is different. Ours is different.”
And those three words, repeated once, may have been the most discouraged Adelman has sounded all season.