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Wolves at Blazers Preview: Are We There Yet?

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The Wolves look to even their season series with the Blazers tonight in Portland.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (31-46) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (38-40)

Where: Moda Center — Portland, Oregon

When: 9:30pm CDT (TV coverage on TNT)

Why: I know the games are pretty meaningless nowadays, but with only four games left on the schedule after tonight, these are some of your last moments to watch the Wolves before a six month hiatus.

If it feels like the Wolves only play the Blazers as of late, well you are somewhat correct. Tonight will be the third time in seven games that the Wolves square off against the Blazers, partly because of a hiccup in the NBA scheduling, and partly because of the sabotage caused by the Disney Company. Nevertheless, tonight will be the Wolves final contest against the Blazers this season as well as their final super late start time for you fans in the eastern and central time zones.

Trailing 2-1 in the season series, the Wolves dropped their first two contests with the Blazers earlier this season before rebounding (literally) on Monday night, due in large part to another monstrous performance by the seven-footer from Edison, New Jersey.

Speaking of Karl-Anthony Towns, if you missed his dominant performance on Monday against the Nurkic-less Blazers because you were watching something else, say the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship, chew on this for a moment:

Since Selection Sunday, when all those college players were eagerly awaiting to see who would be placed in their portion of the bracket, young KAT has played a little basketball himself, averaging 28.0 points on 56.4% shooting, gobbling up 10.7 rebounds, and hitting nearly 91% from the foul stripe. Now that’s real madness.

The only red flag during that span? His minutes (as well as the minutes for another young pup Andrew Wiggins). As of today, the Wolves continue to have three of the top six players in average minutes per game, with Wiggins (37.2) third, LaVine (37.2) fourth, and Towns (36.9) sixth. While we all know Zach was officially lost back in early February to season-ending knee surgery, one can argue the Wolves season was also officially lost around the start of March Madness, when the Wolves lost six straight games and wasted valuable opportunities to gain ground on the Blazers as well as the Denver Nuggets.

Why am I bringing up the minutes issue yet again? Especially after my guy Drew masterfully discussed it back in March? Well, because the issue isn’t getting any better, and frankly its actually getting worse. For example, back on Monday when the Wolves played the Blazers, Kris Dunn got six whole minutes on the court in a game that had zero meaning whatsoever (unless you support tanking in which case it literally had all the meaning in the world). Since March 1st, Dunn has failed to play more than 20 minutes in twelve of seventeen contests.

How about the other young PG on the Wolves bench, you say? Well, his playing time has been even worse. In those same seventeen games, Tyus Jones has played 20 or more minutes only twice, including three games that he too saw only single-digit minutes. For a team eliminated from playoff contention and that has talented young players on the bench that need meaningful reps/minutes, that is flat out embarrassing.

All in all, you may not care at all about the minutes issue or think much of this mini rant. Hell, there’s only four Wolves games left after tonight, the Twins are on pace for 182-0, and summer is right around the corner. But for a franchise about to wrap up their thirteenth straight season without making the playoffs and hasn't necessarily displayed competent leadership throughout the years, abusing the career odometers of two of the NBA’s brightest young stars in a series of meaningless games is downright absurd.

We know Towns can play. We know Wiggins can score. We know Rubio can make plays. But do we know if Tyus Jones is an NBA-caliber PG? Do we know if Dunn can shoot well enough to (eventually) claim the starting PG job? I’m not so sure about either question, but I DO know that the best time to find out is in real-life NBA games against other teams who are actually trying, not in the desert in early July against another batch of college kids.

“And now, your starting lineups...”

Expected Starting Lineups

Minnesota Timberwolves
PG - Ricky Rubio
SG - Brandon Rush
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Gorgui Dieng
C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Portland Trail Blazers
PG - Damian Lillard
SG - C.J. McCollum
SF - Maurice Harkless
PF - Noah Vonleh
C - Meyers Leonard

Injuries

Timberwolves: Zach LaVine (knee), Nemanja Bjelica (ankle), and Nikola Pekovic (ankle) are OUT.

Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic (leg), Ed Davis (shoulder), and Festus Ezeli (knee) are OUT.

Four Factors

As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Blazers match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).

Factor / Wolves / Blazers

eFG% / 51.1% / 52.0%

TOV% / 14.4 / 13.8

ORB% / 27.5% / 23.0%

FTR / .287 / .279

Without Nurkic, the Blazers have resorted back to their old selves from earlier this season, losing back-to-back games against the Wolves and Jazz after ripping off nine wins in ten games. With Nurkic lost for the rest of the regular season, the Blazers now turn to a combination of Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu in an attempt to provide the playmaking, rebounding, and rim protection lost when Nurkic sustained a right fibula fracture last week. With Thibs dead set on playing out the rest of this season as if it was the NBA Finals, and considering how dominant the Wolves have been all year on the offensive glass, it could be another Golden Corral-type night for young KAT and the Wolves.

Prediction: Wolves 111, Blazers 104