The Blazers are happy it's finally April. No foolin'.
We're LIVE from the Rose Garden, as your Trail Blazers welcome the Minnesota Timberwolves in a meeting of two teams talking about playoffs with less and less certainty these days.
March was a tad tumultuous for Portland, which went 6-11, fired its head coach and basically blew the roster to smithereens. It was also a month that saw the Blazers lose twice to these very Timberwolves, whose star forward, Lake Oswego native Kevin Love, likely wishes March could last forever: He averaged nearly 31 points and 19 rebounds per game last month, including four games with 40+. Still, Minnesota has lost 9 of 13, but remains within stabbing distance (3.5 games) of the eighth and final playoff spot out west. Right behind the T'Wolves are the sputtering Blazers, who've lost 12 of 18 and are four full games behind Houston and Denver in the standings.
April will decide whether Portland sneaks into the postseason or slinks quietly into the Lottery. Can they start off on the right foot tonight? Click past the jump to find out, and follow along as I deftly describe all the action, on and off the court.
Minnesota: Luke Ridnour and Martell Webster at guard. Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams and Kevin Love at forward.
Portland: Raymond Felton and Wes Matthews at guard.
Joel Pryzbilla at center JJ Hickson, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge at forward. After missing Friday's loss at the Clippers with a hyperextended elbow, Portland All-Star Aldridge is back in the starting lineup tonight. Another late scratch: After scoring 29 points and grabbing 13 boards against the Clips, JJ Hickson will get the start up front for Portland.
The Timberwolves' roster, coaching staff and front office is full of familiar faces to Blazer fans and Oregonians alike. Led by Lake Oswego's Love and flanked by former Blazer Martell Webster and former Oregon Duck Luke Ridnour, Minnesota is coached by former Rip City skipper and first-ever team captain Rick Adelman, as well as fan favorite Terry Porter.
Former Blazer player/broadcaster and Portland native Steve "Snapper" Jones was honored pre-game. He's presented with a framed No. 26 jersey to honor his 26 years with the club, and Snapper shows some emotion as the fans show him some love.
And away we go ... Blazers strike first as Matthews steals one from Webster and goes the length of the court for a bucket. Webster's mohawk is ... not good.
10:01 - Hickson gets an early block and that sets up a lob attempt from Felton to Aldridge, but LA can't finish at the rim. Blazers lead 4-2.
8:54 - Aldridge hits his first shot of the night, a jumper from the elbow. On the other end, Love muscles into position, grabs a Ridnour miss and is fouled by Hickson. He hits both and it's 8-4 Blazers.
7:28 - Felton goes the length of the floor and hits a wide open layup. Wolves are settling for jumpers so far, while Portland's passing/ball movement is looking crisp. Lots of hustle on the offensive glass, too. Speaking of, after chasing down a miss, Matthews nails a 3-pointer to put Portland up 15-6. Adelman calls for time. Portland shooting 7 of 12 and out-rebounding Minnesota 7-4 early, just the sort of start interim coach Kaleb Canales is looking for.
5:39 - Felton nails a 3 from the right wing to stem a mini-run by the Wolves. Blazers lead by eight for a moment, but on the other end, Hickson picks up his second foul. Love hits both free throws and it's 18-12. Luke Babbitt checks in for Portland.
4:55 - Love draws a foul on Aldridge as LA pokes the ball away on a Love head-fake in the left corner. Tough call for the Blazers and the fans let him know it. Love at the line again, hitting both. He's 6 for 6 from the line so far, and it's 18-14 Blazers.
4:25 - Love flips one in and he's the first player on the court in double figures. Blazers lead 18-16, but Love looks like he's prime for another big night against Portland.
3:02 - Wesley Johnson hits a jumper to from the top of the key to tie the game and push the Wolves' run to 12-2, but on the other end, Matthews nails a J to join Love with 10 points to put the Blazers up 21-19. Timeout on the floor.
2:25 - As the shot clock winds down, Williams takes it into the lane untouched for a layup to give the Timberwolves their first lead of the game, 22-21.
1:08 - Wayne Ellington nails his first shot of the game, and it's a 3-pointer on the left wing to put Minnesota up two. On the other end, Aldridge is fouled on a pass, but the T'Wolves are in the penalty, and LA ties it up at 25 with a pair of free throws.
End of first quarter: Blazers can't get a final shot away before the quarter ends, and we're tied at 27. Blazers shooting 45% (10 of 22) from the field, while the Wolves are at a 47% clip (9 of 19). Blazers are 3 of 7 from beyond the arch, and each team has 11 boards. Love, Matthews and Aldridge each have 10 to lead all scorers.
9:31 - Lots of missing going on out there. Love and Aldridge both check out after playing the entire first quarter. Hickson on for Portland.
9:13 - Babbitt hits a 3 from the left wing (he's 10 of 16 from behind the arch in his last four games), and Portland leads 32-29.
8:22 - Babbitt picks up his third foul on a Hickson missed free throw. Flynn with a pretty no-look pass to a cutting Batum, but he's fouled as he goes to the rim. He hits both to put Portland up 35-31, and Craig Smith (who hasn't played since March 22) checks in for Babbitt.
6:23 - Williams spins to the rim and goes up for an emphatic dunk as the shot clock expires, but he's rim-checked. Embarassing. Full timeout on the floor, and the Blazers are holding on to a 37-33 lead.
6:04 - Batum drives the baseline for the dunk, but he's called for offensive goaltending because the ball hit him in the head, so no basket. Odd call, since the ball had to pretty much go through the rim to hit Batum's head.
4:22 - No goaltending possible on this one, as Batum nails a 3 from the left wing. After a Minnesota miss, Crawford hits a little fading J inside to put Portland up 44-37. Adelman takes a timeout.
3:55 - Love nails a three as a rebound bounces out to him mid-stride. He has 13 points to lead all scorers. On the other end, Batum slashes and draws a foul. He hits a pair and Portland leads 45-40.
3:11 - Aldridge and Love really battling down low. Lots of flailing arms and bodying up. LA wins this battle, however, taking it inside and banking it off the glass to put Portland up 47-41. On the other end, Aldridge picks up his second foul.
2:09 - Crawford with a patented crossover and nearly turns it over as he goes to a knee on a slip to the ground. But as the shot clock is about to expire, Crawford hits a fadeaway jumper off the glass from the top of the key. Not the best shot selection, but it might just get the struggling Crawford going. Blazers lead 49-44 and Love is well on his way to a monster night: He has 16 points and five rebounds.
1:00 - After Aldridge finds Felton with a great look on a backdoor cut, he blocks Love and sends it into the third row. On the ensuing possession, Aldridge strips Love and the Blazers take a 53-46 lead as Matthews takes it inside for the score.
0:41 - Aldridge and Love going toe to toe and exchange some pleasantries. Refs pull them apart and LaMarcus goes to the line to hit a pair and put the Blazers up 55-48.
End of first half: Crawford hits a jumper from the top of the key in the waning seconds to put Portland up 57-50. An inspired first half for Portland, which shot 51% from the field and held Minnesota to 40% (16 of 40) shooting. Love leads all scorers with 18 points, while Aldridge has 14 and Matthews has 12.
And we're back at it ...
9:30 - Williams has four points this half, both in transition. Aldridge also has four, both on jumpers and the Blazers are up 61-54.
8:32 - Williams gets to the rim again, hitting the shot +1. On the other end, Felton draws contact from Ridnour and flips one in +1. He converts the FT and Portland's up 66-60.
7:41 - Matthews to the rim for a running bank, and he's got 16 points on 7 of 11 shooting. Quietly having a big night.
7:03 - Blazers turn it over and the T'Wolves convert on a fast break as Webster scores it. Canales doesn't like how his team has come out thus far, and he calls a timeout. Blazers up 68-64, but the Timberwolves have the momentum at the moment. Right behind me during the break, former Blazer superstar Clyde Drexler is interviewed for the home TV broadcast.
6:07 - Felton with a steal in the lane and leads the break. He finds Batum, who nails a 3 in transition to put Portland up 73-64. Felton has another steal on the ensuing possession, but he's called for a loose bowl foul, much to his chagrin.
5:18 - Aldridge with his 20th point to put the Blazers up double-digits, 75-64. Love answers with his 20th point, and these guys are really going at it.
4:13 - Batum hits a three +1 as he cuts back to the wing after faking the slash. He converts the free throw, and it's a 79-68 lead for Portland. Babbitt and Crawford check in.
3:56 - Felton pushes the pace on a rebound and finds a streaking Aldridge in transition. Felton throws a no-look pass and Aldridge finishes with a big dunk. Blazers with their biggest lead of the night, 81-68. Felton has eight assists and Aldridge leads everyone with 22 points.
3:11 - Batum forces a bad shot and the Wolves bring it down with some patience, finding Webster on the right wing for a 3. Minnesota just 3 of 15 from beyond the arch, but that was a big one to stem the tide a bit here.
2:04 - Aldridge fakes out Love and rises to hit the jumper and get Portland back to a 10-point lead. This has been a great matchup so far tonight, and I doubt that will be the last battle. On the other end, LA shows his defensive chops, taking a charge.
1:10 - Batum nails a 3 from the right wing to give Portland an 86-75 lead. Now he's got 20 points.
0:49 - Crawford fires a pass into Babbitt, whose dunk is blocked down low by Randolph. On the other end, Batum returns the favor with a block on Ridnour.
0:03 - Ridnour with a big 3 in the corner to bring the T'Wolves within six points.
End of third quarter: After Ridnour's bucket, everyone on the floor stops except Flynn and Babbitt. Flynn runs the floor and finds a sprinting Babbitt, who calmly floats one in just before the quarter ends to give Portland an 88-80 lead. Chalupas are within sight. Blazers with four guys in double figures: Aldridge (24), Batum (22), Matthews (16) and Felton (10).
11:34 - Hickson picks one up in the paint and goes strong to score the first bucket of the quarter and a 90-80 Portland lead.
9:36 - Flynn finds Hickson cutting down the lane for the hoop, and Portland is up nine. On the other end, an undaunted Williams nails a jumper with Hickson all over him. Blazers up, 94-87.
8:23 - Babbitt nails a three from waaaaaaaay deep ("from Clackamas County," says the PA announcer) and Portland is again up double-digits. After a Wolves miss, Flynn again finds Hickson down low for a bucket and Portland is up 99-87. A playoff team takes this lead and puts this game away. Just sayin'.
7:29 - Crawford scoops one in and the Blazers are up 101-87. Chalupas secured, along with the biggest Portland lead of the night. Blazers on a seven-point run.
5:47 - Crawford with a step-back rainbow from mid-range, and Portland is up 16. Again, not the best look, but a big bucket for a struggling Crawford. He has 12 points. Timberwolves take a timeout ... and HERE COME THE T-SHIRT CANNONS!
5:25 - Hickson with a rebound inside and throws it off Love and out of bounds. Already a fan favorite, that will certainly help his standing with Blazer fans.
4:31 - As will that. Felton lobs one into Hickson for a jam, and Portland leads 107-93. Felton has nine assists.
3:21 - AS WILL THAT. Hickson follows a Batum 3-point miss with a strong rebound and put-back. Portland up 109-97. Hustle Hickson has 13 points (a dozen so far in the fourth) and seven boards.
1:51 - JJ Hickson is going off. He flips in a running hook to give Portland a 12-point lead. Aldridge follows with a jumper from mid-range and that will probably do it. Felton with the assist (his 10th) and Portland leads 113-99.
0:59 - Matthews hits a pair and Portland brings in Babbitt for Aldridge. Big ovation for LA, who scores 26 and grabs eight boards. Blazers up 115-101.
FINAL: Blazers win 119-106. Portland scores its second-highest point total of the season and boasts six players in double-figures. Portland extends their fourth-quarter lead with a 9-0 run in the fourth and prevents Love from doing much at all during the second half.
Aldridge and Love, who mixed it up a bit early on, each have 26, but the Blazers do well to hold double-double machine Kevin Love to nine boards. What a great rivalry that's turned into. Matthews scores 18 points, while Hickson has a huge fourth quarter to get to 15 points. Crawford scored 12, while Felton finished with 10 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
Portland finishes 52% (46 of 88) from the field and holds Minnesota to 46% (36 of 78). The Timberwolves get 21 points each from Williams and Ridnour, as well as 12 points from Ellington, but they can't take advantage of 35 trips to the free-throw line. Blazers out-muscle the 'Wolves on the boards, winning the rebound battle 44-36, and Portland's point guards combined for 18 assists (a season-high 7 for Flynn).
A nice win for Portland, who avoids the season sweep and leapfrogs Minnesota in the Western Conference standings. An especially big night for Hickson, who poured in 14 points in the fourth quarter and showed the type of hustle and grit that's immediately endeared him to Portland fans. He's averaging 19.3 points and eight boards while shooting 69% (34 of 49) from the field in his last four games.
With 13 games remaining, it's time for Portland to either make a run or tank enough to get a higher Lottery pick. With Hickson and Flynn getting more and more comfortable with their 'mates, and a healthy Aldridge really settling into a complete game, Portland could be one of those first-round matchups nobody wants. But they'll need to put together something special the rest of the way for that to happen.