There aren’t a ton of certainties in the NBA, but there’s one that’s tried and true: Winning ugly is always better than losing pretty. Just ask the Minnesota Timberwolves which side of their 124-118 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers they’d prefer to be on.
It wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing basketball for the Blazers Saturday, but they did the gritty things necessary to take the upper hand in this one, and the Wolves didn’t. Portland imposed its will on offense, forcing enough contact to go 25-for-28 from the free throw line and turning 11 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.
Chris Finch didn’t sound particularly happy about the whistle his team got, but he didn’t sugarcoat its rebounding issues.
“We weren’t very physical, and we didn’t put our body on enough people,” he said postgame. “They hold Rudy [Gobert], they tie Rudy up and get into his body. We gotta go, we gotta get into their bodies and swarm them.”
The Wolves, meanwhile, created plenty of fun highlights — many of which came during Anthony Edwards’ 13-point third quarter, when Minnesota led by as many as 10. But that stretch of single-handed dominance may have had a detrimental effect on the Wolves’ offense. The well-rounded flow that personified a 66-point first half thereafter vanished as Minnesota’s attack got bogged down.
In that first half, which featured a 39-point second quarter, every key contributor had his moment. Edwards, who finished with 26 points, started surprisingly strong on the second night of a back-to-back with eight first-quarter points. From there, D’Angelo Russell picked up the slack with 11 of his 24 points in the second. When Gobert departed with three fouls late in the second quarter, Naz Reid returned after rolling his ankle to get buckets as a roll man and conjure some impressive hustle plays on defense. And through it all, there was Kyle Anderson being the perfect connector piece, dropping dimes and Slo-Mo-ing his way to the basket.
Kyle Anderson alley-oop pass to Rudy Gobert, SloMo is such a connective passer pic.twitter.com/VzYWrbcRad— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 11, 2022
But once that kinetic energy wore off, Minnesota didn’t have an answer for Portland’s physicality, and toughness won the day for the Blazers.
“I don’t think we were in the right spacing for a lot of the time,” Reid said of the second-half struggles. “Another part of the time, we made good plays, good reads. We just gotta make more of those good plays and reads.”
Portland certainly had its moments of brilliance. Damian Lillard was an unstoppable force off the dribble; he got to his spots with such ease that all Minnesota could do was foul him, leading to 15 points at the line. Simons was a menace navigating space, finding gaps to launch his jumper off screens and off the bounce. By the final buzzer, the two guards had combined for 67 points on 44 field goal attempts.
“I think our guys were in good position, playing good defense. We’re not even going to get into that,” Anderson said of Minnesota sending Lillard to the line. “It’s tough. You’re playing good defense, and then [Lillard]’s going to the line. He’s too good for that.”
Lillard also did what he does in the clutch, scoring or assisting on 11 of Portland’s final 13 points.
One silver lining for this game was the continued improvements Gobert is displaying within the Minnesota offense. Gobert scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting, including some forceful finishes at the basket that might have turned into drops or awkward attempts in previous weeks.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” Gobert said. “I think my teammates, we’re starting to get to know each other better. There’s some trust that’s been coming along.”
Reid had another theory on the source of Gobert’s development.
“I’ve seen him getting in my bag a little bit,” Reid joked postgame. “A little bit of euro[steps], catching the ball and finishing very well. He’s big for us, especially right now. He’s a big-time player. Big kudos to him.”
The other good news for the Wolves is they’ll quickly have a chance to show what they learned Saturday. They get a rematch with the Blazers, again in Portland, on Monday night.