Gary Neal’s right hand seemed just fine.
The Timberwolves guard fought through the pain during a sizzling performance off the bench in a 121-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night at Target Center.
Neal suffered a hand contusion during Friday’s practice but scored a season-high 27 points on 8-for-11 shooting in only 21 minutes.
“I was a little bit nervous before [Friday], but he should probably get his hand hit before every game,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said.
The Wolves relied on that same hand to score 11 straight points to extend a five-point lead in the fourth quarter. Neal later sunk six free throws in the final minute to ice the game after Portland point guard Damian Lillard — who finished with 32 points and eight assists — scored 11 points in the final 48 seconds to keep the Blazers close down the stretch.
Neal entered the game in the second, scoring 10 points during a quarter where the Blazers held their largest lead at 10. It also gave the Wolves another scoring threat in the backcourt outside of Kevin Martin.
“As a shooter, I always call it the UFO effect,” Neal said. “Sometimes you run up and down the court five or six times and don’t touch the ball, then there’s three seconds left on the shot clock and everybody expects you to make it.
“That’s a tough position to be in, but coach Flip has put [me] in a position where I’m always touching the ball. I’m always involved and that’s probably why my shooting has been good thus far.”
As it turned out, the dagger didn’t come from Martin, who finished with 29 points, or Neal. Point guard Ricky Rubio made his only three-pointer in the game with one minute left and the shot clock expiring, giving the Wolves a seven-point lead. Rubio was matched up on the perimeter with Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge after a pick-and-roll with Kevin Garnett, who kicked it out of the post back to Rubio on the wing.
Aldridge gave Rubio ample space, daring the point guard to make a shot he’s struggled to make consistently throughout his career.
“I’ve been working on that shot,” said Rubio, who finished with 13 points, 15 assists, eight rebounds and one turnover. “It was a great situation and a great moment, and I took it.”
The Trail Blazers led 55-51 at halftime after going 7-for-10 on three-pointers in the first half. Portland forward Nicolas Batum, who has struggled from long distance at 29 percent this season, scored 13 of his 17 points in the first half. He went 5-for-6 from the floor, including connecting on all three of his three-point attempts.
Though the Blazers shot 51.9 percent on three-pointers, they went only 2-for-6 during the third quarter. The Wolves started the second half on an 8-0 run to take a four-point lead. All eight points were scored by Martin and rookie forward Andrew Wiggins, who combined for 20 of the 30 points scored in the quarter.
Wiggins went 5-for-5 from the floor, mixing in his midrange jumper with a few aggressive drives at the basket. The No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft finished with 18 points on 8-for-15 shooting. He has reached double figures in scoring 33 of the Wolves’ past 35 games.
“We’ve kind of the other team’s nightmare when we both got it going because you don’t know what defender to stick on who,” Martin said. “I think that’s where we complement each other greatly. … It’s been a work in progress. He’s improved so much over the past two or three months since I’ve been out.”