December 18, 2017, 6:52 pm
The Timberwolves will take on the division rival Trailblazers for the first time this season as they look to complete a winning homestand.
Sitting at 2-2 so far it’s been a somewhat disappointing outcome thus far at home. Coming in the Wolves were set to face four struggling teams and it looked to be an opportunity to sweep the long homestand. Unfortunately tough losses late to the Sixers and Suns have wrecked those ideas and now the Wolves have to fight to get the 3-2 record.
For the past couple of years the Blazers were known more for their offensive prowess than their defensive intensity. Losing Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, their three best defenders, certainly played a major role.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum kept the offensive firepower turned up to the max, but their defensive abilities remain poor, and the team defense suffered as a whole.
At last year’s deadline the Blazers picked up Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets and since then he’s been a key piece in solidifying the defense. Other players have become key pieces in the defense as well, namely Moe Harkless, Ed Davis, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu.
In addition Noah Vonleh and Shabazz Napier, and even Lillard and McCollum, have vastly improved on the defensive end of the floor.
Adding it all together and the Blazers have quietly become the second-best defensive team in the NBA in terms of defensive rating and fifth best in opponent’s points per game. The previous two seasons without Aldridge, Batum and Lopez, the Blazers ranked 20th and 24th respectively in defensive rating.
As a playoff team the previous two years with that defense, it’s expected that the Blazers would be among the top teams in the NBA this season….
That has not been the case. In fact the Blazers are behind the Wolves in the standings.
In building their defense to elite levels, some offense has been sacrificed as a result. It likely wasn’t expected to fall this far though. The Blazers rank 18th in offensive rating and 22nd in points per game, a far cry from the previous two years ranking in the top 10. In fact this is the worst offense the Blazers have had since the 2007-08 season.
In selling out for defense the Blazers field a number of players who aren’t efficient at their respective positions on offense. Nurkic is a versatile offensive center, but he is not a great shooter really from anywhere. For a seven-footer he struggles at the rim, and only takes 39 percent of his shots there.
Instead he takes the majority of his shots from the mid range, 60.1 percent of his total shots, where he’s shooting around 37 percent. He also shoots just 64.3 percent from the line. In addition to his shooting woes he turns the ball over a lot, averaging three per game, while only averaging two assists.
Nurkic can be a dangerous offensive player when he’s on, and he’s going to take a number of shots averaging 14.8 points per game, but he can be exposed for his inefficiency if he’s not hitting his jumpers. He’s also been injured at times this season and is still building back to full strength.
Aminu, Harkless and Turner are all options at the wing, but none are great shooters. Aminu has locked down the 3-point shot, hitting a robust 48.4 percent on 4.5 attempts per game, but is otherwise a non-option on offense. Harkless and Turner are non-factors.
At this stage the Blazers rely on Lillard and McCollum to carry the offense and chipping in little bits of defense where they can, while basically everyone else carries the defense and chip in little bits of offense where they can. If teams can slow down one of C.J. or Dame, while keeping their secondary players in check, they become beatable.
Jimmy Butler vs. C.J. McCollum
Taj Gibson vs. Jusuf Nurkic
If the Wolves want a chance to win this game, their going to have to at least slow down and make things difficult for one of McCollum or Lillard. With Butler likely guarding McCollum that will be their best chance. There’s no need to double team anyone on the Blazers, and even if they do it won’t be Butler or Teague helping out.
There’s no reason McCollum or Lillard should be left open in any circumstance.
Offensively Butler will have a mismatch, as will Teague, while the rest of the starters will be covered tightly. It will be important for the Wolves to win the guard battle. If they can it should be a victory.
For the big men it will be interesting to see who guards Nurkic. Recently Thibs has had Towns guard fours who step out and leave Gibson to guard the fives, but with Nurkic, who plays in the mid range a lot, and Aminu who’s almost exclusively beyond the arc, it may be a different story.
Regardless of who guards Nurkic the challenge will be keeping him in the mid rage and forcing him into contested jump shots. He can’t be left wide open, but at the same time he can dribble right by and finish at the rim if he’s challenged too close off the close out.
If the Wolves are able to slow down one of McCollum and Nurkic, they become easy to guard, which should allow the Wolves to take care of business. For the reason, expect the two best defensive players on Minnesota to take care of that duty.
Jeff Teague – PG
Jimmy Butler – SG
Andrew Wiggins – SF
Taj Gibson – PF
Karl-Anthony Towns – C
Damien Lillard – PG
C.J. McCollum – SG
Evan Turner – SF
Al-Farouq Aminu – PF
Jusuf Nurkic – C
Nemanja Bjelica (foot) – OUT
Jimmy Butler (back) – QUESTIONABLE
Wade Baldwin (thumb) – OUT
Meyers Leonard (illness) – QUESTIONABLE
C.J. Wilcox (knee) – OUT
Where to Watch:
8:00 ET/7:00 CT on Fox Sports North