Before tonight's game, the Minnesota Timberwolves' PR department tweeted out a statistic that is yet another on a long list of sad stories of the terminal struggle of this franchise.
Here courtside at Moda Center. #Twolves going for perfect 3-0 road trip - would be the 5th perfect road trip of 3+ gms in tm history.— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) April 10, 2016
Only five times in the history of the franchise! The Wolves hadn't won a game in Portland since 2012. More and more of these streaks and historical marks that this young team has now broken. Karl-Anthony Towns made the game-winning shot with less than two seconds left, and the Wolves closed their final road trip of the season perfectly with a 105-104 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Getting to that final play took yet another interesting journey of a game, one which felt similar to Tuesday night's game by the bay. In this game, like that one, the Wolves' starters looked tired and lacked energy, leading to an early deficit. Gorgui Dieng in particular continues to show the weight that long minutes have worn on him, his usually reliable midrange jumper hitting the front of the rim and his rotations on defense slow (although the lightning-fast Damian Lillard may have had something to do with that impression).
The Blazers opened up a double-digit lead late in the first quarter, but once again, the Wolves' bench lineups brought energy to the game and closed the game, tying the game and taking a two point lead halfway through the second on more strong performances by Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad and most notably, Nemanja Bjelica.
Bjelica's resurgent form at the end of the season continued with one of his best outings of the year, recording his second NBA double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, adding five assists, a steal and a block. Bjelica was tenacious on defense, brought rebounding that the starting lineup had failed to give at the start, and shot efficiently when open (4-6 from the field, 2-3 from 3). This was only the fifth game this year Bjelica played over 30 minutes, and the complaint after was that he didn't get more.
The bench's solid work actually pushed the Wolves to a halftime lead, 53-49, and set the table for a second half to let their stars carry them, as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns brought the scoring punch and excellent play they've shown over the last few weeks. Wiggins broke 20 points on the game late in the third quarter, and Towns hit that mark halfway through the fourth. After the back-and-forth start, the game stayed quite even through the third, with neither team leading by more than four points for the entire quarter, with the Wolves taking a 75-72 lead to the fourth.
Noted Wolves killer Lillard and potential Most Improved Player of the NBA season CJ McCollum had no intention of letting the Wolves out of Portland easily though. Both Lillard and McCollum shot well on the night, and their scoring matched the punch of the Wolves' key pieces. The Wolves did a good job chasing McCollum off the line throughout the game, only allowing him to attempt two threes, well below his season average of 5.9 per game (18th in the NBA). Lillard's proficiency from behind the arc (4-10) would be rather important as the game closed.
The Wolves, rather than succumbing to a bombardment of Blazer threes, actually expanded their lead as the fourth wound down: up seven with 4:49 left, up eight with 2:09 left. But, just as soon as the lead seemed safe, the run came, combined with a slight lack of poise and some sloppy turnovers from the Wolves. After the Blazers reduced the lead to six, then four (followed by an old, foolish Zach LaVine 20-foot iso brick), then two, some traded free throws and layups set the stage for the final scene: a three-point Minnesota lead with 7.6 seconds to go.
The obvious call would be to foul immediately as the ball was inbounded. Instead of doing that, the ball made its way to Lillard, who sized up Ricky Rubio, took a three as Rubio grabbed for his wrist to foul, and drained it. Three pointer, plus the free throw, and suddenly what had looked like no worse an outcome than overtime was a one-point deficit with 3.5 seconds left.
Everyone watching the game though they knew exactly what Sam Mitchell's play call would be: an isolation play for Andrew Wiggins. The Trail Blazers also thought this would be the play, which is why the inbounds to Karl-Anthony Towns caught them by so much surprise.
Credit to Mitchell for calling a play the Blazers weren't prepared for. One final missed heave, and a third straight road win to finish the season was complete, with yet another feather in KAT's cap.
Towns finished the game with 27 points, 9 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, his streak of 14 straight double-doubles coming to an end. Wiggins finished with 23 points of his own, a solid finish after a slow start. However, they needed the strong minutes from their bench to pull them to this win. The Wolves' bench outscored the Blazers' bench 34-23, with Bjelica's 11, 12 from Shabazz Muhammad and 8 (on a perfect 4-4 from the field) from the ageless Tayshaun Prince.
A little reflection on the end of the Wolves' road schedule for the season: they finish 15-26 for the season, with away wins at Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles (both Clippers and Lakers), Oklahoma City, Memphis, Golden State and Portland. Once the Pacers and Bulls figure out which of them is making the playoffs, the Wolves will have beaten either seven or eight of the NBA's playoff teams on their own home courts, an impressive record for any team, let alone a team as young as this one.
The Wolves will finish the season with home games on Monday and Wednesday, and why not finish with two more wins and hit 30? This team has shown fight and poise in close games over great basketball teams, and continues to grow and learn before our eyes. It is a really awesome time to watch this team play basketball. Let's enjoy it.