March 2, 2018, 4:11 am
In hindsight, it was only a matter of time until the Portland Trail Blazers took an insurmountable lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Damian Lillard, as should be more than obvious by now, is just too good to stay cold forever.
The Blazers’ superstar scored 23 of his game-high 35 points in the second half, bringing his team back from a double-digit deficit to beat the Timberwolves 108-99 at Moda Center on Thursday night. C.J. McCollum added 19 points for Portland, while Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier chipped in 16 points apiece. Minnesota, playing without the injured Jimmy Butler until early April at the earliest, was led by Karl-Anthony Towns‘ 34 points and 17 rebounds on 11-of-19 from the field. Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points, but was frustrated throughout the contest by the Blazers’ aggressive individual defense, shooting just 7-of-20 and committing four turnovers before fouling out in the game’s final seconds.
It wasn’t all roses for Portland. The Wolves took a five-point lead into halftime, quieting a jazzed Moda Center crowd behind 21 points by Towns and fortuitous shooting struggles by the home team. The Blazers shot 16-of-49 from the field before intermission, including a remarkable 0-of-13 from beyond the arc – with six of those misses coming from Lillard. Not that he was worried about those rare shooting woes, of course.
“I was just missing,” he told Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune after the game. “I just knew I had to shoot the ball a little bit higher. I wasn’t worried about it, honestly. I knew I was going to keep applying pressure through the course of the game, and eventually it was going to fall.”
It was Nurkic, though, who sparked Portland early in the third quarter. He scored six points during the first three minutes of the period, helping the Blazers completely erase their halftime deficit and take a one-point lead over Minnesota with 8:55 remaining in the quarter. But the Wolves refused to back down, buoyed by the ability of Towns and Wiggins to produce points from the free throw line even when their shots weren’t falling – which, in the former’s case, wasn’t often. Minnesota took a 74-64 lead, its biggest of the game, on a Eurostep floater by Wiggins as the game clock read 2:49, prompting a timeout by Terry Stotts that turned out to be all the fuel Lillard needed to ignite his fire. He scored seven points before the quarter was over, cutting the Wolves’ advantage to just 78-75 entering the final stanza.
With momentum clearly on his team’s side, Stotts opted to eschew his normal playing rotation and left Lillard on the floor to begin the fourth quarter. He was subbed out for Evan Turner shortly thereafter, though, leaving a crowd ready to burst with excitement wondering who might be the player to coax it. Napier, throwing a weeks-long slump firmly behind him, answered the bell. He scored five points in less than 30 seconds on a triple and pull-up jumper, putting the Blazers up 84-82 just before Lillard came back in the game to put the finishing touches on perhaps his team’s most important win of the season thus far.
Living up to his name and reputation, Lillard poured in 12 points over the game’s final six minutes and 30 seconds. He hit a pull-up jumper, made all four of his tries from the line and drained a pair of threes, the last of which gave Portland its first double-digit lead of the game, 99-89, with just 1:38 remaining.
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) March 2, 2018
This win was hardly about Lillard alone, of course. Each of the Blazers’ perimeter players deserves plaudits for making life hell on Wiggins. Al-Farouq Aminu had a team-high 12 rebounds, and Ed Davis was so good late that Stotts left Nurkic, who was playing well offensively, on the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter. McCollum and Napier came alive just before Lillard, allowing basketball’s preeminent closer to do what he does best. Beating Minnesota without Butler isn’t the same as doing so with him, but there’s something to be said for any team grinding away at a sizable deficit and eventually taking one of its own, regardless of any injury-related circumstances.
That’s what Portland did on Thursday night, going 10 games over .500 for the first time in two years and breaking into the top four of the Western Conference for the first time all season. Unfortunately, neither of those accomplishments mean much of anything at the moment given the increasingly crowded playoff field. Only three and-a-half games separate the third-place Wolves from the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers; the Utah Jazz are now one and-a-half games behind Doc Rivers‘ team despite winning eight of their last 10.
There’s no time to celebrate in the West, basically. Case in point: The Blazers host the seventh-place Oklahoma City Thunder, suddenly fighting for their playoff lives, on Saturday night.