Minnesota Timberwolves (38-26) at Portland Trailblazers (35-26)
The murderer’s row of games begins tonight. The Wolves don’t necessarily need to excel during this stretch of games, but they do need to survive. Portland is only 2.5 games back of the Wolves right now and they have been on an absolute tear of late, going 13-5 in their last 18 games. The Wolves, thankfully, are leading the season series 2-1, so the Blazers can only tie for the season series, which the Wolves have an advantage on due to their superior conference record.
The Wolves have barely survived playing the Blazers even with Jimmy Butler, so tonight’s test will be made even more challenging without the Wolves’ star.
The Blazers get a ton of production out of their two star guards, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. Together, they account for about 48 points per night and they will certainly test the Wolves ability to defend out to the perimeter. They like to run a lot of high pick-and-roll action to get McCollum or Lillard space to either pull-up for threes or to attack the rim. It puts a ton of pressure on the defense and Karl-Anthony Towns will have his work cut out for him tonight.
The Blazers, somewhat surprisingly, do not take a ton of threes, only 27 per game, which ranks 23rd in the NBA. They do rank third in three-point percentage and the Wolves would do well to force the Blazers to put the ball on the floor, as their wing rotation is relatively light on playmakers.
Tonight will be the first test case of how the Wolves play a good team without Butler. The lack of wing depth will be challenged, as the Blazers are going to be putting Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, with Maurice Harkless serving as the other wing. The Wolves will be straight up bigger than the Blazers across the board, as they will have a distinctive size advantage at the 2-4 slots with Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica, and Taj Gibson. Of course, this could also just lead them to getting run off the floor.
The other way to handle it is to put Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones out there at the same time. The Blazers are going to be playing small at the guard position most of the game, as Shabazz Napier gets a lot of burn as well. It probably would also be helpful for Marcus-Georges Hunt to get some time just following C.J. McCollum around during the bench stints.
The Blazers, particularly compared to previous years, have a surprisingly good defense. For the year they rank 10th in defensive rating, well above the Wolves near-last ranked defensive rating.
The Wolves’ offensive gameplan without Butler has been a steady diet of Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins, with Towns cleaning it up near the basket or from deep. I believe that the Blazers are one of the teams that likes to stick a four on Towns and try to front him all game long. Without Butler around, it will be interesting to see if the Wolves are more determined to exploit that matchup.
Tonight is a big game. If the Wolves get a win they can maintain their leadership of the Western Conference battleground from the 3rd to 10th seed. The Blazers, of course, need this win to keep their spot as well. Should be a fun one.
Projected Starting Lineups
Prediction - Wolves 102 - Blazers 101. Wolves sneak away with a close victory.