Trail Blazers challenge Timberwolves' winning ways (Jan 14, 2018)

BY AP • January 13, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two consecutive contests that were close in the second half quickly turned into runaway victories for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they stretched their win streak to four games Friday night.

The Timberwolves are learning how to close out games and punish opponents in the second half.

Portland learned earlier this season that Minnesota was coming together with its new veterans meshing with its holdover young stars.

The Trail Blazers now hope to get healthy and start a run of their own, beginning Sunday against the Timberwolves.

"I feel good about where we are," Portland point guard Damian Lillard told The Oregonian. "Obviously this whole year we've been saying we wish we could have eight or nine games back that we feel like we should have won. But considering all those things, I think we're in a good spot. A lot of other teams are going through things as well. Looking at the last two seasons, since we had the big turnover in our roster, this is the best we've been at this point of the season. So I'm happy with where we are. We just have to keep getting better, keep growing."

Minnesota has shown its growth with Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague joining Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The most important development has been an improving defense to aid one of the league's most efficient offenses.

The Timberwolves (28-16), who have won their past four games by an average of 18 points, wrap up an impressive five-game homestand against the Blazers.

Minnesota beat New Orleans and Cleveland in the first two games of the homestand, leading each game by as many as 34 points. A close game against Oklahoma City turned into a 16-point win as the Wolves pulled away in the third quarter.

On Friday against New York, the Wolves took control in the fourth quarter of a 118-108 win.

"I think we've grown a lot as a unit," Gibson said. "You can tell that the urgency to win in this locker room is real important. From pretty much in the early months, it's a different attitude. Guys understanding that we really have a chance to do something special. So, guys just want to win. Whoever's out there, we're going to do it."

Towns was one assist shy of his second career triple-double with 23 points and 15 rebounds. But it was Towns' work with four reserves that led to the win. Nemanja Bjelica scored eight points and Gorgui Dieng had six in a 17-3 run at the start of the fourth.

The Wolves had eight players score in double figures and four bench players chipped in 37 points.

"I think we just have a good chemistry right now," Towns said. "We know where people are going to be. We're doing a great job of putting ourselves in spots that we know the person dribbling or facilitating the ball is comfortable getting into them."

Unlike Minnesota, Portland's calling card this season has been its offense, while the offense has been inconsistent. One reason has been the injuries that have hit the Trail Blazers (22-20).

Lillard has missed seven games. Fellow starters Jusuf Nurkic (three games) and Al-Farouq Aminu (13) have also missed time. Portland has used 10 starting lineups with 13 players making a start.

"It's been a long 41 games," Blazers coach Terry Stotts told the Oregonian.

Portland has lost two games in a row, which snapped a streak of six wins in eight games. Lilliard, CJ McCollum and Shabazz Napier all started Friday in a three-guard lineup used for the first time. Evan Turner missed the game with an illness.

"When you look back ... there's always problems that strike you during that course of the season," Stotts told The Oregonian. "Losing a lot of close games early was a topic. Certainly, the home losing streak was a topic. Not finishing in the paint has been a topic. I still think there's room to grow. The season's so long, you really can't afford to look back too much, so we're looking forward."

Turner's status for Sunday's game is uncertain. His return would provide the Blazers with a rare game with full health. Minnesota, too, is healthy after Teague returned two games ago.

The Wolves allowed more than 100 points for the first time in eight games on Friday, but are learning to rely on their defense.

"There's going to be nights in which you don't shoot the ball great," Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. "If you defend and you rebound and you don't turn it over, you'll still be in position to win. You should be able to win with your defense. Those are some good signs. But we got another team coming in Sunday that can put a lot of points on the board. We need to be ready."

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