• Sometimes getting out of the first quarter alive is enough, which proved exactly the case for the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night. And once the third quarter came, those early struggles had been forgotten almost entirely. Now only if the Blazers can remember what propelled them to such a dominant second-half performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves for the season’s remainder.

    Portland beat Minnesota 123-114 on Saturday night, extending their home winning streak to seven games and counting with arguably its most impressive performance of 2017-18. Damian Lillard celebrated his third All-Star berth with 31 points, four rebounds and five assists on 17 shots, and C.J. McCollum bobbed and weaved for 28 points and five assists of his own. But despite the dominant play of their star guards, this was a team effort for the Blazers more than anything else, a reality best exemplified by 17-of-30 shooting from beyond the arc and the defensive impact of a bench-heavy unit that opened the second quarter.

    Stotts’ team trailed 29-25 after the opening stanza, but it seemed like the Timberwolves’ lead should have been larger given the ease with which they scored early. A group of Shabazz Napier, McCollum, Pat Connaughton, Zach Collins and Ed Davis put the clamps on Minnesota thereafter, though, forcing a pair of shot clock violations and stringing together multiple consecutive stops. If not for the shot-making of Jamal Crawford, the Blazers might have left the first half with a lead. They had to settle for a tie instead after Lillard beat Wiggins, a common theme, to the rim for a layup just before the halftime buzzer.

    It didn’t take much longer for Portland to grab it and never look back, though. The home team scored a season-high 43 points in a beautiful third quarter, outscoring the Timberwolves by 13 points and blowing open a hotly-contested game between likely playoff squads. Several ping-ping offensive possessions warrant highlights, and Al-Farouq Aminu deserves individual recognition for draining two triples and jumping a passing lane for an uncontested fast break dunk. It was Pat Connaughton’s reverse alley-oop from McCollum, however, that best encapsulated the Blazers’ playing spirit during a quarter that saw them shoot 66.7 percent from the field, make seven 3-pointers and dole out as many assists.

    With Jimmy Butler watching in street clothes and Karl-Anthony Towns quiet, Portland’s 13-point opening advantage basically made the fourth quarter a formality. Not that Stotts’ team played like it, though. The Blazers continued pouring it on offensively late, moving the ball for open 3-pointers and getting out in transition with the same verve they showed a quarter earlier. By the time Connaughton had his second alley-oop dunk of the night off a no-look pass from Lillard with just over three minutes remaining, Tom Thibodeau had already emptied the floor of his regulars.

    A win is usually just a win in the NBA, but a team gets several victories every season that stands apart from others, and this one certainly applies for Portland. The question now is if the good vibes emanating from Saturday night will continue permeating from here on out. The Blazers’ improved offensive play of late suggests as much, but the influence of Butler’s absence can’t be discounted, either. He makes the his team go defensively, and is another player – like Andrew Wiggins, who finished with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting – who Portland doesn’t have the personnel to defend effectively for 48 minutes

    But beating the Timberwolves, a top-four team in the West with a wealth of talent and experience, is an achievement nonetheless for the Blazers. We’ll find out soon if blowing them out means even more.

    NOTES

    • With both teams playing well, it might be time to begin examining a potential first-round matchup between Portland and Minnesota. The outcome of Saturday’s game notwithstanding, there were several aspects of the Blazers’ victory that will be cause for concern should they meet the Timberwolves in the playoffs. Chief among them: Guarding Wiggins, Butler and Towns, of course. Portland’s lack of size on the perimeter means one of the former two will always have a size advantage in the paint, and Stotts’ conservative pick-and-roll coverage – coupled with Thibodeau’s proclivity for playing two traditional big men – means Aminu is the better of two bad options in the starting lineup to guard Towns. The trouble Lillard and McCollum gave Minnesota off the dribble won’t necessarily come to pass in the postseason, either; having Butler next to Wiggins and Jeff Teague rather than Nemanja Bjelica makes Portland’s guards much easier for the Wolves to keep in relative check.
    • Blazers fans who have been frustrated by Nurkic’s vertical explosion at the rim had to be pulling their hair out in the first quarter. He missed two bunnies over the similarly ground-bound Bjelica after catching on the roll, both of which were the result of the Timberwolves forward attempting to take a charge. Plowing through Bjelica and earning an offensive foul isn’t the answer, but meek attempts to shoot over the top of a non rim-protector definitely aren’t, either. The good news: Nurkic was much better, and more physical, in the third quarter.
    • Davis has been a revelation passing the ball of late. He made several different high-level reads after catching on the roll Saturday night, finding shooters beyond the arc and cutters heading to the rim. Davis’ most impressive pass, though, was an airborne dime to Collins for a triple immediately following a catch deep in the paint. How many bigs in the league can even see this play, let alone execute it?

    • Connaughton gave Wiggins far more resistance than Turner did. The next time Portland is in a close game against a premier wing, I’d like to see Stotts give Connaughton a chance to guard the opposing team’s best player. Turner is strong and has good instincts, but just lacks the quickness to keep up with a guy like Wiggins off the bounce.
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