It was all Portland Trail Blazers last night at the Rose Garden as they hammered the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-93 in a game that was never close after the early first quarter. The lopsided outcome--and the talent disparity between the two teams--makes it somewhat difficult to take much from what we saw. Still, here is the latest edition of Five Thoughts.
1. The Blazers' Backcourt Serves its Purpose
Sunday was the second outing for Portland's unconventional new starting lineup, which pairs point guards Steve Blake and Andre Miller in the backcourt while sliding Brandon Roy to small forward. In explaining why he went small, Blazers coach Nate McMillan talked about his desire to get more ball movement and push the ball in transition. Check and check. Sprinting out after turnovers and misses, Portland scored 16 fast-break points in the first half and had a season-high 21 for the game. The Blazers' ball movement was simply remarkable, with the team handing out assists on 35 out of 40 field goals. In the first half, 19 of Portland's 21 scores were assisted, with the quick passing creating open looks in the painted area time and again. What was really impressive is that it wasn't just Miller and Blake racking up the assists (they had three and five, respectively). Everybody got in the act, including Brandon Roy finishing with seven assists on a night where he scored two points and attempted just six shots in 26 minutes, and Rudy Fernandez handing out six assists off the bench.
2. Nathan Jawai is an Interesting Project
The clear highlight of a rough night for the Timberwolves was the first extended playing time for second-year center Nathan Jawai, who entered Sunday having played a grand total of 31 regular-season NBA minutes in his life. With Minnesota falling behind early and Jawai offering a spark, he ended up seeing 23 minutes of action and was highly productive in them, scoring 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. The enormous Aussie was considered a decent prospect in 2008, when the Raptors selected him with the 41st overall pick. However, a heart condition cost him all of training camp and nearly the first two months of the season, putting Jawai way behind. He ended up getting dealt twice over the summer, ultimately landing in the Twin Cities. Jawai is exactly the kind of project a rebuilding team like the Timberwolves ought to be taking on. He's plenty young enough to make something of himself (he turned 23 in October) and has legitimate skills in terms of his size (he's listed at 6'10 and 280, making him one of the league's 10 heaviest players) and touch around the basket. The question is whether Jawai can round out his game enough to take advantage of his ability to score down low. Last night, he did that and offered some encouragement for the future.
3. Al Jefferson Isn't Himself
All reports had suggested that Minnesota center Al Jefferson has been struggling to return from a torn ACL, a process complicated by a sore Achilles that has bothered him in the early going. That certainly appeared to be the case last night. The explosiveness that made Jefferson a dangerous post player simply isn't there. While he was able to post a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), Jefferson looked rusty at times, airballing a pair of hook shots. At the defensive end, Jefferson is having a hard time protecting the paint. It certainly doesn't help that he's starting alongside Oleksiy Pecherov, a poor defender. Jefferson and Ryan Hollins are a better pairing at that end of the floor, but the impotent Timberwolves badly need Pecherov's shooting ability at the other end of the floor. I don't envy Kurt Rambis trying to fit the mismatched pieces together.
4. Triangle + True PGs = ???
The other issue confronting Rambis is whether the modified triangle offense he's brought to Minnesota from the Lakers is the right fit for the team's personnel. Certainly, the triangle isn't making matters any easier for Jefferson, who finds himself spending entirely too much time away from the basket, where he is not a major threat. However, I really wonder about its fit with the Timberwolves' point guard duo of Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions. Throughout Phil Jackson's career running the triangle, he's had facilitator point guards (John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Ron Harper, Derek Fisher) alongside ball-dominating shooting guards (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). Minnesota's point guards bring different skill sets, as both Flynn and Sessions are best suited creating offense with the ball in their hands. Sessions in particular seems to be struggling with the adjustment and was a complete non-factor, finishing with five points in three assists. Flynn at least can offer some perimeter punch; three of his four makes came from at least 17 feet out. But using Flynn is a jump shooter is a waste of resources. Over the course of the season, Flynn has done a better job of getting to the basket (of his 74 shot attempts entering the game, 27 came at the rim). Still, I think there's room to make that task easier for the rookie.
5. Oden Putting it Together
For the second straight game, Greg Oden was effective on offense for the Blazers, scoring 11 points in 22 minutes and showing off hooks and floaters in the post. While beating Jefferson one-on-one is not exactly as impressive as how Oden was able to hold his own against Tim Duncan in Friday night's win over San Antonio, it was encouraging nonetheless to see Oden continue to make use of his opportunities in the post. The ability to score down low is obviously there, as Oden demonstrated during the preseason, but something held him back early in the regular campaign. Now, he's playing smart, controlled basketball--he did not have a turnover--and gives the Portland offense a different dimension. Also worth noting: Oden, who had one game of four fouls and five with five coming into Sunday night, picked up just one personal in 22 minutes of action. He can't show off those budding post skills if he's on the bench, so staying out of foul trouble is a must for Oden.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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