The Minnesota Timberwolves (38-26) have been coping fairly well without Jimmy Butler. They’ve won their first two games without their All-Star swingman by 18 points apiece, although they were against two of the worst teams in the league in the Chicago Bulls and the Sacramento Kings.
The trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague has ably stepped up to fill the void left by Butler. Towns and Wiggins have both scored 22 or more points in both games, with Towns coming off a particularly impressive 26-point, 17-rebound performance against the Kings. Meanwhile, Teague has continued his impressive play of late by recording at least 20 points and six assists for the fourth time in the last five games.
The Wolves will be targeting a hat-trick of wins when they pay the Portland Trail Blazers (35-26) a visit. The Blazers are on their little hot streak of their own recently. They thumped the Sacramento Kings, 116-99, to win their fourth game in a row and their sixth in the last seven games.
The red-hot Damian Lillard followed up yet another 40-point outing against Phoenix with a strong double-double of 26 points and 12 assists. Shabazz Napier added 20 points off the bench to make up for CJ McCollum’s rare off night (11 points, 5-18 FG). Meanwhile, Jusuf Nurkic continued his impressive play since returning from the break with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Three keys to the game
Home-court advantage - Home-court advantage is a big deal in this matchup. The home team has won the first three games of the season series, which includes a 123-114 win by the Blazers against a Wolves team that was without Butler. Moreover, it’s important to consider that the Blazers have gone 10-1 in their last 11 home games and the Timberwolves are 2-11 in their last 13 road games.
Point guard battle - Lillard has been close to unstoppable in February. He’s averaging over 31 points for the month with four games of 39 or more points. But Teague’s been no slouch himself, as he’s put up 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.4 assists on 52 percent shooting over his last five. Both players are so important to their respective teams’ offenses, and their performances could end up making or breaking their squad’s chances of winning this game.
Wing showdown - Similarly, Wiggins and McCollum will also have a big impact on the outcome of this game. Wiggins, in particular, has stepped up his game of late in Butler’s absence and will need to continue to do so given the Wolves’ sheer lack of other options. However, it could be tough to outgun McCollum, who has had a lot of success against the Wolves this season.
Matchup to watch
Karl-Anthony Towns vs Jusuf Nurkic - Towns vs Nurkic may look like a mismatch on paper, but the Bosnian Beast has been impressing since the All-Star break. He’s averaging 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over his last four games. It’ll obviously be tough for him to outperform Towns, but the Blazers should be satisfied if he can at least hold his own against the Wolves’ talented big man.
Timberwolves projected starting lineup
PG – Jeff Teague | SG – Andrew Wiggins | SF – Nemanja Bjelica | PF – Taj Gibson | C – Karl-Anthony Towns
Blazers projected starting lineup
PG – Damian Lillard | SG – CJ McCollum | SF – Maurice Harkless | PF – Al-Farouq Aminu | C – Jusuf Nurkic
It’s hard to overlook Teague with the way he’s been playing at the moment. The veteran point guard has stepped up his game in a big way since Butler’s injury and should relish the chance to go head-to-head with Lillard. His 16.7 points in three games against Portland is a good tick up from his season average of 13.5, and that should see a more significant bump with his increased usage.
On the other side, Lillard is obviously a standout candidate given his red-hot month. However, don’t overlook his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, who has done pretty well against the Wolves this season. In three meetings, he’s averaging 22 points on 54 percent shooting.
The Timberwolves have looked impressive without Butler, but the Blazers on the road will be a tough test for them. They almost lost by double-digits against them in a previous meeting without Butler, and with both Lillard and Nurkic in fine form, a repeat performance could be in the cards. Take the Blazers to win and cover a 4.5-point spread.
The Blazers score their fifth win in a row as they take care of the Timberwolves, 118-110.
This game will be broadcast nationally on TNT. Tip-off is at 10:30 pm Eastern.