PORTLAND, ORE. – Whether one of them still gets there remains uncertain, but the Timberwolves’ 105-98 loss at Portland Thursday felt a little like something called the playoffs.
For the Blazers, it meant a much-needed comeback victory that pushed them 1 ½ games ahead of Denver in pursuit of the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with just six days left in the regular season. For the Wolves, it was their second game in four days – and their third in 12 days – against Portland, the kind of familiarity usually only experienced between two teams come playoff time.
On Monday, they overcame the Blazers 110-109 at Target Center. On Thursday, they lost a 15-point, third-quarter lead after they missed their first 13 shots from the field in the fourth quarter and finished 3-for-23 while Blazers reserve guard Allen Crabbe couldn’t miss, particularly from three-point distance.
“The start of the fourth quarter, we got hit pretty good,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We let Crabbe get loose. That was a problem.”
The Wolves now have lost a double-digit lead 21 times this season, the most by an NBA team in the last two decades. Thursday’s defeat was the 15th time they led by at least 15 points and still lost. They held a 70-55 advantage in the third quarter’s opening minutes and trailed by six points before the fourth quarter was five minutes old.
“That’s something we definitely have got to fix next year,” said Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns, whose team has just four games left in its season. “We’ve got to come back a more disciplined and focused team.”
Towns delivered a 24-point, 16-rebound performance on a night when teammate Andrew Wiggins led everyone with 36 points. But Towns took just two of his 16 shots and scored just two of his 24 points in a fourth quarter that started with Gorgui Dieng as the only Wolves’ starter on the floor because Tom Thibodeau needed to get the others some rest.
Towns played the game’s final nine minutes and the Blazers double-teamed him at every turn for every bit of that. The Wolves didn’t make a field-goal attempt until Wiggins’ short running shot with 2:46 left. By then, the Blazers had started the fourth quarter on a 17-4 run and grabbed the game’s momentum.
“We missed our first 13?” Wiggins asked afterward. “Man, that hurts, too. That, plus the shots that Crabbe was hitting.”
Beaten twice already this season by Blazers guard CJ McCollum’s games of 43 and 32 points, Crabbe was the one this time who made four three-point shots, pulling up in transition and firing away, in fewer than two minutes.
The first became a four-point play after a fouled three-point shot attempt that fueled a fourth-quarter reversal, from an 87-80 deficit after three quarters to a 97-91 lead in just the next 4 ½ minutes. That allowed the Blazers a 24-11 fourth quarter that proved decisive, even though Portland continues to play small without injured big man Jusuf Nurkic while it fends off the Nuggets.
“We struggled most of the night,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “But the fourth quarter was terrific.”
Crabbe scored 13 of his 25 points and made those four consecutive threes in that fourth quarter on a night when he went 8-for-10 overall on three-pointers. Crabbe’s eight threes ties him with Washington’s Bojan Bogdanovic, Houston’s Eric Gordon and Cleveland’s Kyle Korver for most by any NBA player off the bench this season.
“I love seeing a shooter get on a roll like that,” Stotts said.
The two teams met yet again Thursday because of that March game postponed by unsafe court conditions at Target Center. Such familiarity isn’t all that far off from the playoffs, when a team might play an opponent seven times in a matter of days.
“We’re eliminated, but I like the fact that we’re playing this team three times in a short amount of time,” Thibodeau said before Thursday’s game. “This is about as close as you can get to simulating the playoffs, playing the same team over and over so you know everything they’re doing and they know everything you’re doing. Then it’s all about can you execute? We have to use this as part of a our learning. I want us to do that.”
The Wolves lost 112-100 at Portland nearly two weeks ago and won 110-109 Monday night at Target Center in a game rescheduled because ice under the court and unusually warm and humid winter day combined to caused condensation that left the wooden floor too slippery to play.
On Thursday, the Wolves squandered the chance to beat twice in a week an opponent to which they now have lost 21 of the last 23 games between the teams. Portland is in the midst of a four-game stretch where they play the Wolves and Utah alternatively and then do it all over again starting with Thursday’s game.
“It some ways it makes the prep easier because you don’t have to watch their last five games,” Stotts said. “You just look at the last time you played them. It’s similar in a way to the playoffs, but you just know so much more about that team in your preparation for Game 1 of a playoff series. You don’t have that type of preparation like the last time, we played Minnesota.”
· The Blazers played without Nurkic and fellow big men Ed Davis (shoulder) and Festus Ezeli (knee).
· Wolves GM Scott Layden, player personnel director Brian Pauga and members of the team’s scouting staff and front office are in Portland for the annual Nike Hoop Summit that will be played Friday at 9 p.m. Central time (ESPN2). Wolves players such as Towns and Wiggins played in the game once upon a time.
· Wolves center Cole Aldrich kept track of the Masters tournament’s first round before Friday’s game. Kansas University pal Gary Woodland shot a 3-over 75. The two have played golf together, but Aldrich said every round is followed by a trip to Allen Fieldhouse for some shooting games. “He was an all-star basketball player in the state of Kansas,” Aldrich said, “but I had to get him back for kicking my butt on the golf course.”
· The headband is back for Wolves forward Shabazz Muhammad, who wore one again on Thursday.