Shootaround Access: Wolves vs. Blazers

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Tonight’s matchup with Portland is really a collection of storylines all rolled into one. It’s two divisional rivals who are hoping to gain ground in what also boils down to each team chasing the eighth spot in the playoffs. It’s two organizations who have young, talented cores, and it’s two teams that are under .500 in their last 10 games and are looking to put consecutive victories together.

The Wolves and Trail Blazers will square off tonight at 7 p.m. at Target Center on Fox Sports North Plus and 830 WCCO-AM. When they do, Minnesota is hopes to pick up its first back-to-back victories since a four-game winning streak from Dec. 7-15. That was seven weeks and several injuries ago.

If Saturday night was any indication, the Wolves have a chance to do just that tonight. They pounced on the Hornets early, holding them to 14 first-quarter points en route to a 29-point rout.

“Just getting the monkey off our back,” center Chris Johnson said. “Just to string some wins together here. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. Just believe that we can win games. We’ve been in every game. It’s just about our energy at the beginning, and we had a complete game last game.”

The Wolves are still 12-9 at home despite their January woes, and they’re catching a Blazers team that is not only 7-15 on the road but has not won away from the Rose Garden since their Jan. 5 meeting at Target Center. They have, however, won four of their past six games after a six-game losing streak in the middle of January.

Bench will be a key tonight

The Blazers aren’t known for their bench production. In fact, they’re known for just the opposite because their starters have so much talent and log so many minutes. Four of their regular starters average at least 35 minutes per game—that includes shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who is still questionable for tonight’s contest.

That’s where the Wolves could have an edge tonight. If they are able to wear down the Blazers with a platoon of reserves who can keep the intensity high, they might be able to wear down Portland over the course of the game. That’s the hope, anyway.

“I feel we can run this team a little bit because they do play their starters a lot,” center Chris Johnson said. “So, I feel like that could be an advantage.”

Three of the Blazers’ starters are teetering on Kevin Love’s minutes from last season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum all are averaging more than 38 minutes per game—and for good reason. Aldridge is an All-Star, Batum is playing like one and Lillard is a front runner for Rookie of the Year and has a spot in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. All five of their regular starters are averaging more than 13.0 points per game.

Still, Blazers coach Terry Stotts said a lot of what Portland’s bench does is more than just statistics and numbers. When they’re in the game, they’re there to fill a certain role.

Over the past two weeks, both Stotts and Batum said that group is doing its job.

“Our bench plays every night, and like I said after the game, our bench play is not defined by how many points they score,” Stotts said. “They need to contribute and do the things that they can do.”

The Wolves, on the other hand, have the depth right now to provide a nice spark with their reserves. They did it on Saturday, when Dante Cunningham scored a game-high 18 points on 9-of-9 shooting and paced a bench that scored 68 points against the Hornets.

Alexey Shved added 12 and Mickael Gelabale had 11. Between Cunningham, Greg Stiemsma, Lou Amundson, Gelabale and Johnson, that group of five reserves shot 23-of-26 on the night.

Quick Hits

  • Johnson was asked at shootaround about how comfortable he’s feeling right now after more than two weeks with the Wolves. “This is way better than my first 10-day [contract]. I’m progressing each day.”

  • Ricky Rubio said he enjoyed his time taking in the Gophers and Hawkeyes men’s basketball game this weekend at Williams Arena, especially the fact that the game went down to the wire. But he didn’t say we’d see him wearing maroon and gold attire anytime soon.

  • Nicolas Bautm has known Mickael Gelabale for “five or six” years and has played with him each summer in France as both are on the French National Team. He said he looked up to Gelabale growing up. The two were able to catch up last night, as the Blazers are staying at the same hotel as Gelabale during his stint with the Wolves. “I hope they’re going to sign him for the season. We really love him,” Batum said of Gelabale’s skills.

  • Batum also said he was genuinely interested in the Wolves this summer when the team pursued him through restricted free agency. “The way they played last year, Rubio was good, Kevin Love was an All-Star, Pekovic, all those guys. And coach Adelman, I would have liked this coach.”

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