The absence of Zach Randolph has forced the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers to step up their play. The result has been one of the team's best runs of the season.

With their leading scorer expected back soon, the Blazers go for their fourth straight victory when they visit the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

Randolph leads Portland (29-40) with 23.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, but has missed the last three contests on bereavement leave after two of his former high school classmates were shot and killed outside a Marion, Ind., motorcycle club last Sunday. One of the victims was also the cousin of his longtime girlfriend, Faune Drake.

The forward is expected back either for this contest or Monday's game at Chicago to conclude a four-game road trip. Portland has rattled off three straight wins in Randolph's absence - its longest run since a season-high five-game winning streak Dec. 10-20.

Rookie guard Brandon Roy's 3-pointer with 17.3 seconds left in regulation forced overtime on Friday, and the Blazers went on to win 102-100 over the Atlanta Hawks. Portland's second-leading scorer finished with 23 points - nearly seven more than his season average - along with nine rebounds and five assists.

Fellow rookie LaMarcus Aldridge has arguably made the most notable impact without Randolph in the lineup, averaging 21.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and shooting 55.6 percent from the field over the last three games. He scored 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds Friday.

Point guard Jarrett Jack was also a difference maker against the Hawks, scoring 17 of his 18 points after halftime.

"A couple of weeks ago coach asked me if I was ready to take over this team,'' Jack said. "If he asks me again, I'd say I have taken over this team.''

The Blazers are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Minnesota (29-39) and Portland are 11th and 12th in the Western Conference, respectively, but remain within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot.

Portland has won two of the previous three meetings between the teams this season, including a 101-98 overtime victory at home in the last matchup on Jan. 24. Randolph led Portland with 22 points and 15 rebounds in that contest, while Kevin Garnett had 31 points and eight rebounds for the Timberwolves.

However, Minnesota has defeated the Blazers in four of the last five matchups at the Target Center. The Timberwolves could use some of that success as they return from a 1-4 road trip.

They blew a nine-point lead with four minutes remaining on Friday, losing 85-82 to the Seattle SuperSonics.

"We just panicked. We lost our composure a little bit,'' Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said. "We let this one slip away.''

Rookie Craig Smith had 19 points off the bench to lead six Timberwolves in double figures, while Garnett had a season-high 22 rebounds but tied his season low with 10 points.

The Timberwolves began the season 20-16, but have dropped 23 of 32 games since to put them in danger of missing their third consecutive postseason.


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