PORTLAND, ORE. – You know what they say: Trail by the three, win by the three.
That’s what the Portland Trail Blazers did during 108-99 victory over the Timberwolves on Thursday, when they couldn’t make a three-point shot to save themselves … and then they could.
They missed their first 13 threes Thursday and didn’t make one until midway through the third quarter. But then they put the West’s third-place Wolves away and moved within a mere half game of them by making six of them in a lopsided 33-21 fourth quarter that won the game.
“Obviously, they’re more than likely to make one,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said after he delivered a 34-point, 17-rebound, 3-block game that wasn’t enough. “But you try to play with the confidence that they won’t. They started hitting them in bunches in the fourth and that’s when they needed to be their best and they were their best, and we weren’t in the fourth.”
With star Jimmy Butler rehabilitating his injured knee back home and Shabazz Muhammad waived Thursday evening, the Wolves suited up just 10 players and played nine of them, if you count Marcus Georges-Hunt’s 15 seconds in the first quarter. They finished the game without veteran forward Taj Gibson, who left the game after the third quarter with a left hip contusion.
Afterward, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called his team’s defense “for the most part, good enough,” and his team’s rebounding “pretty good enough.”
“We didn’t have a strong enough fourth quarter to win the game,” he said. “We made some mistakes. They made [shots].”
Trailing by 11 points in the second quarter and by six points with 9 ½ minutes left, the Blazers ended the four-game season series with a 2-2 split — no tiebreaker for either team, should each need one for playoff seeding.
They did so when Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard began March the same way he left off in February. After he delivered the highest scoring month (31.4 ppg) in team history, Lillard scored 13 of his 35 points in a fourth quarter when Portland made five threes in 6 ½ minutes during a 20-4 run that won the game.
He missed his first seven three-point attempts, was 2-for-12 from the field in the first half and didn’t make his first three until midway through the third quarter.
Lillard, Shabazz Napier and Al-Farouq Aminu each made one of those five and CJ McCollum made the other two when Blazers coach Terry Stotts in the fourth quarter went to a three-guard offense featuring Lillard, McCollum and Napier.
Almost before you knew it, the Blazers went from down six to leading 96-86 with 2:45 left.
“I usually feel that way,” Stotts said when asked if he felt Lillard would get it going. “Both he and CJ, I mean everything when those guys are open, you think it’s going to go in, no matter what they’ve done before. And the good thing is that they think that, too.”
The Blazers won their fifth consecutive game — their longest winning streak this season — and their seventh in the last eight games. They’re also 12-1 now in their last 13 games at Moda Center.
The Wolves missed their first seven threes themselves and didn’t make one until Towns made the game’s first late in the first half. They finished 4-for-20 on threes while the Blazers went 9-for-30 after a 6-for-12 fourth quarter.
“It was a weird game in that regard,” Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford said. “We knew at some point whey start going and unfortunately for us, they did. That changed the game. If you think about it, it’s a two-point game and they hit three in a row and now it’s 11. It happens fast. That’s what they’re good at.
“If we see them again at some point, we’ll be aware of that.”
If they see each other again this season, it will be in the playoffs.
For one night on March’s first day, Thursday’s game evoked a bit of the springtime playoffs.
Thursday’s game started a daunting eight-game stretch in the next three weeks that could go a long way toward determining the Wolves’ playoff seeding, or if they make the playoffs.
The Wolves play Western Conference competitors Portland and Utah on consecutive nights and after a rare five-day break in their schedule, they’ll play Boston, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio, Houston and the L.A. Clippers before they face a team (New York) with a losing record.
“We played as if it was a playoff game,” Towns said. “We went out there and gave everything we have. Sometimes you come out ahead, sometimes you come up short. We just need to keep this edge and this mentality and if we do that, we’ll have a great chance of being in the playoffs and putting ourselves in a good spot.”