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Blazers 95, Wolves 89: Groundhog Day

Nights like these make me feel like it’s Groundhog Day.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — How many times can one team crash and burn in the third quarter?

I suppose this version of the Wolves is prepared to find out.

Leading by 12 at halftime vs. the mediocre Blazers (15-21)—who were playing without Damian Lillard, as he sat out for the fourth consecutive game with a sprained left ankle—the Wolves stumbled out of halftime again. They were outscored 32-15 in what became another disastrous third quarter at Target Center.

As the great radio play-by-play announcer Alan Horton noted, the Wolves have fallen apart too many times in games they have held double-digit leads this season. Some of these breakdowns can be chalked up to youth, bad execution, embarrassing defense, and long stretches of iso-ball, but it’s happened enough times that it’s become a mental hurdle for this team.

“Here we go again,” has been plastered across their faces too often in a season that was supposed to be a breakthrough campaign under the guidance of head coach Tom Thibodeau.

C.J. McCollum scored a career-high 43 points and the Blazers were the latest team that overcame a double-digit deficit. They ultimately beat the Wolves 95-89 on Sunday night.

“I thought he played like an All-Star. Hashtag NBAVote,” Blazers center Mason Plumlee joked. Indeed, McCollum did play like an All-Star as he diced-up the Wolves and roasted them in the pick-and-roll all night long.

The defense on McCollum—aside from Kris Dunn, who had his best game as a pro and was the most effective solution to stopping C.J. from cooking—was rather suspect. They simply couldn’t contain the Blazers fourth-year shooting guard. Instead, McCollum destroyed them and carried the offensive load as the substitute point guard with Lillard sitting out.

“I just think that we gave up too many shots to McCollum and we’ve got to fix that next time,” said Karl-Anthony Towns.

Nights like these make me go back to the Groundhog Day feeling I tweeted about on December 6. How many times can the Wolves step off the curb right into the pothole full of icy water before they learn from it?

“The thing that is concerning is the big halftime leads that we don’t protect and we don’t come out with the urgency and the understanding of playing a full 48 minutes and how important that is and how hard you have to play,” Thibodeau said in his postgame press conference.

“The double-team should mean that it’s easy offense; get rid of the ball quickly, hit the first open man in front of you, and trust the pass,” he continued. “Let that guy make the play. We have to do better in that area and we didn’t play good defense in the first half or good defense in the second half.”

Andrew Wiggins finished with 24 points and five rebounds, but it took him 20 shot attempts and seven free throws to get there. He also had five turnovers, two of which came from stepping out of bounds, and got tunnel vision down the stretch as the primary ball-handler and decision-maker.

Karl-Anthony Towns had one of his worst shooting nights (3-15) and finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile, Zach LaVine played his worst game in a long time, which is more of a compliment than anything else, but still damning to the Wolves’ chances of winning.

Rubio also had one of his worst games in recent memory. McCollum took it to him before Thibs appropriately decided to roll with Dunn for the entire fourth quarter. Rubio scored one point on 0-5 shooting and was -18 on the night. His 6-0 assist-to-turnover ratio was good, but he gave little else. Thibs liked the energy and effort that Dunn was giving the team and rewarded him with the fourth quarter minutes over Rubio. I agree with this approach; whoever is playing better deserves the minutes and Dunn obviously gave them a better chance tonight.

What did Blazers coach Terry Stotts think about his team’s defense, which entered the night with the worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.5 points allowed per 100 possessions?

“I was really pleased with our defense almost all night,” Stotts said. “The third quarter was obviously even better but our defense from the very beginning was very good. I thought we were aggressive on the pick and roll, on our post-ups; we weren’t able to convert some of those things early. I was disappointed in some of our execution, particularly in the first half, but we really responded after halftime.

Obviously C.J. [McCollum] had an outstanding game. I thought Mason Plumlee was really, really good in his trapping and his energy defensively. Al-Farouq [Aminu] would help with his double team but he was very effective at least forcing [Karl-Anthony] Towns out of his comfort zone. And everybody else just kind of locked in.”

Shabazz Muhammad added 12 points as Minnesota’s bench outscored (VERY RARE) Portland, 28-14. It was Muhammad’s fourth double-digit outing in the last five games and he seems to be turning things around a bit. Mason Plumlee finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, his ninth time scoring 15 or more points this season, already matching his total from last year.

Portland shot 61.1 percent (22-36) in the second half after being limited to 37.8 percent (14-37) in the first half.

The Lone Bright Spot

Kris Dunn looked sharp tonight. Although he said this wasn’t a breakthrough game for him, it was most certainly the best he’s looked in a Wolves uniform and a performance he can really build from. "I don't know when my breakthrough game is, but this definitely wasn't it,” Dunn said after the game.

Final box score: +12 with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds, and a career-high three blocks. His rejection of Evan Turner’s weak shot attempt was particularly nasty (see below). Tonight was Dunn’s third double-digit scoring effort in his career and he gave the Wolves a real punch off the bench like they need him to.

This was the Kris Dunn the Wolves need every night.

Dunn on playing in the fourth quarter:

“It was good. It just helped me in the long run. How special the fourth quarter is. The intensity is a lot harder. People are a lot more locked in. The fourth quarter is where you’ve got to really bring it.”

On how he tried to guard McCollum:

“Just tried to be physical with him. Tried to take his strength away. He’s a good player. He’s been in the league for a while, so he knew how to find ways to get back to his moves. I just tried to do as much as I can on him.”

On the difficulty of guarding McCollum in the pick and roll:

“Definitely hard. He can shoot the ball—the three, the midrange. He can drive it to the basket. When somebody can do all of those things, you’ve just got to try and find a couple things to try and take away from him. He got it going today so it was kind of hard.”

Towns on Dunn’s game tonight:

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He understands what he’s doing. He’s getting more and more comfortable on the court every day. I’m very proud of him. The work ethic that he puts in is why he’s doing so well now.”

Let’s check out some of his best plays with some quick thoughts:

I love how Dunn is able to finish through contact when he attacks the rim.

He can truly be special as an off-ball cutter/finisher.

He’s becoming the Dikembe Mutombo of point guards. Not in Dunn’s house!

And the best for last...a true SportsCenter Top 10 play...I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody do this live. I can’t stop watching this move by Dunn.