Today I took the time to sit down and talk Blazers and Timberwolves with Minnesota blogger Zachary Bennett. Zach writes over at Hickory-High.com, Timberpups.com and hosts a radio show. Follow him tonight during the game at @ZacharyBD and tune in at 5:00 p.m. PST for tip.
1. Let’s get this one out of the way first: What do you see happening tonight in the matchup between LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love? Last time they met they sort of nullified each other and you could tell there was this boiling rage in both right below the surface. It was fun.
Kevin Love is exhausted, as is LaMarcus Aldridge, I’m sure after both of them endured grueling, physical games less than 24 hours ago. Because of the injury to Nikola Pekovic, Love has worn a larger burden – offensively and defensively – recently than when he did last time these teams met. I believe if Portland wants to throw multiple bodies at Love to remove some of the defensive pressure of Aldridge, they’re going to be able to do that. Ronnie Turiaf isn’t too active without the ball so, theoretically (you would be the expert on this), if the Blazers wanted to use Robin Lopez to throw Love off a bit, Lopez and Aldridge could switch to distribute some of the workload on the defensive end. Aldridge on the offensive end will likely still see Love matched up against him, we’ll see if K-Love’s back can handle the Blazers all-star forward for all four quarters. If not, Aldridge may be able to put up big numbers against a wounded Love and a weaker defender in the Wolves backup forward Dante Cunningham.
2. What’s the story with the Timberwolves’ offense and in particular, tell us about how Ricky Rubio has played the last two weeks. What can he do that will give Damian Lillard a hard time on defense?
The Wolves have played six complete games since Pekovic went down in the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls on January 27th. Pek accounted for 17 percent of the Wolves points per game. Since then the Wolves are 2-4 and are scoring 98ppg, that’s almost a 10 point decrease from the 106ppg they were scoring with Pekovic in the lineup. Losing him really, really hurts. As a fan it’d be nice to see Rubio step-up to compensate for the missing production on the offensive end, but the numbers show that’s not what’s happening — Rubio is averaging the same amount of points and assists, per game, than he was with Pekovic in the lineup. However, he hasn’t sustained his performance since the loss of his starting center, Rubio has gone from having a 5.4 net rating to a 1.7. The Wolves as a team dropped from 4.6 to -1.6 in +/- since losing Pekovic.
Defensively Rubio length and quickness makes him a pesky defender. He leads the league in steals, part of that is because of his physical attributes but he’s also a risk taker — Rubio does an excellent job at getting into the passing lanes and anticipates the passes opposing guards are hoping to make. When he’s defending away from the ball, he keeps an eye on things and jumps cross-court passes before they have a chance to happen.
Lillard is quick off-the-dribble, as you are well aware – but if you can remember their last meeting in Minnesota – can hit 3pt shots from nearly anywhere on the court. It’s likely you’ll see Rubio picking up the Blazers All-Star PG before half court. This would disrupt the Blazers flow and discourage Lillard from pulling up from outside, as opposed to waiting for him to arrive on the defensive side of the floor.
3. Cory Brewer was one of my favorite players going in to last year’s free agency. How has he fit in for the Wolves so far?
Speaking of risk-takers, Brewer – like Rubio – is also a gambler in the passing lanes. Brewer’s onball defending hasn’t been stellar, but it hasn’t been an issue since the Wolves acquired Luc Mbah a Moute from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Derrick Williams. Early in the season Brewer lead the league in transition points per game, and he can thank Kevin Love for that. Love’s impeccable outlet passing, combined with Brewer’s knack for leaking behind the defense when a shot goes up, puts Brewer in position for uncontested dunks and layups in transition.
Brewer recently gave birth to a baby boy, he missed the Wolves meeting with the Thunder in Oklahoma City but caught back up with the team last night in New Orleans. Despite the defeat, Brewer’s play was delightfully surprising — he scored 16 on 6 of 10 shooting, was one of two from 3pt range, and converted three of four free-throw attempts. He played well, but his decision making can drive fans crazy at times. Brewer is similar to a child that is unable to help but steal when he’s left unattended in a candy store. Going back to risks, Brewer’s defensive gambles usually result in him halfway down the floor after missing a chance to steal a pass. He’s also prone to dribbling in transition, something he shouldn’t be doing any of, and his lanky arms and unstable handles result in small coronaries for anyone watching.
4. How has the frontline defense changed with Pek out and what does that mean against a team like Portland, who has a formidable starting lineup down low?
Pekovic is a horrific defender in pick-and-roll situations and watching him attempt to move laterally, when defending in the area 10+ feet from the basket, so his presence isn’t incredibly missed in that aspect. However, his 295 pound frame allows Pekovic – when he’s healthy – to bully smaller centers, ala Robin Lopez, when the opponents center is jockeying for position under the basket.
Ronnie Turiaf is a better rim-protector than Pekovic and can alter shots around the rim. Robin Lopez is sneaky quick, and I’ve been extremely impressed with his play this season. If the Blazers want to make the Wolves feel the loss of their starting center most, Lopez needs to be quicker than Turiaf when finding position in the low-block. Lopez is fantastic moving without the ball and flashing on the weakside, from what I’ve seen. Turiaf can be caught ball watching hoping to block, or alter, the shot of penetrating guard — if Lopez can make the most of these mental lapses, he’ll find himself in position for easy buckets under the rim throughout the evening.
5. Give me an outcome for this game.
If you caught the Wolves embarrassing fourth-quarter collapse last night, you know things aren’t going well in Minnesota. Love is battered, bruised, and misses his frontcourt partner in Pekovic — we all do. Given the Blazers met with the physical, rugged, and tenacious Indiana Pacers last night, both of these clubs are sore. I just can’t help but think the sky is falling, the Wolves are in a bad place and really need this win tonight. That being said I expect a disappointing outcome, Portland is likely on a mission to avenge the loss they received last time they came to Target Center, they’re also one of the Western Conference best teams as we approach the All-Star break.
I expect the Blazers to win by 5-15, but am unsure of how the scoring will go. Taking into account the physical games these two teams played last night, and the wear over half of an NBA season takes on the body — it could be a slow, ugly, bad shooting night for both clubs. Or, conversely, we could find that 100 percent effort isn’t being put forth on each possession. The Wolves defensively don’t like to foul, so if the Blazers are working hard to get close, high percentage, scoring opportunities – either finding their bigs or driving the lane – around the rim — it could be a long night for the home club in Minnesota.
For the sake of predictions; 110-101, Blazers over Wolves.
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