One-on-One: Timberwolves vs Blazers Preview w/ Special Guest

Note: Since Derek’s computer is all messed up, Tom is posting for him. But don’t get it twisted: Derek did all the work. Tom just can’t figure out how to make him the author.

Since there are so many great Blazers minds and writers out there, I felt like continuing the guest features to preview Timberwolves-Blazers games. This time I recruited the help of Barbara Titus, formerly of the Blazers blog, Pinwheel Empire. Barbara is not just one of the great Blazers minds on Twitter, but also has good takes on other sports as well. You can follow her on Twitter after reading this post, @BarbaraTitus. Here’s our exchange down below:

Derek James:  Last time these teams met we were robbed of a main event Damian Lillard-Ricky Rubio matchup. With two of the league’s best young point guards playing tonight, what are you most looking forward to from both players?

Barbara Titus: As a point guard enthusiast, I’m very much looking forward to watching Lillard and Rubio duel it out tonight. It’s already clear that they are both leaders in the upcoming class of elite point guards, so this game should be circled on every NBA fan’s calendar just for the “Dame vs. Rubio” aspect. If they each have a good game tonight, we will get the best of both worlds from the point guard position – beautiful, crafty passes from Rubio, and spot-on, deadly shooting from Lillard. Unfortunately, Kevin Love’s broken hand is depriving us of the fun, talented, current and future All-Star point guard/power forward duo showdown, but hey, I’ll give him a break just this once.

DJ: The Blazers have continued to surprise people with their winning record so far, but do you expect them to be able to keep it up in the last half of the season?

BT: Honestly, I’m still not sure what to expect with this team. At the beginning of the season, I definitely didn’t expect them to be where they are now – a team with a winning record in a very real competition for the eighth seed in the West. Can the Blazers sustain this level of success for 35 more games? It may be my unwavering optimism speaking, but I’m going to go ahead and say yes.

As cheesy as it sounds, the one thing about this team that keeps them going is that they don’t ever give up. They might dink around in the first half and dig themselves into a hole, but they refuse to go down without a fight in the second half. Obviously this game plan isn’t sustainable for a championship-caliber team, but this isn’t a championship-caliber roster. They have a strong core with Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews, and they’ve gotten nice production from the 6’9″ JJ Hickson at the center. The bench production has been fairly weak, but Terry Stotts has been learning how to better mesh the starters with the bench to create somewhat effective lineups.

Will they make the playoffs? I’m not sure. The Lakers seem to be off to a nice start since they’ve reset their season for the tenth time, and James Harden and company are continuing to develop and produce for Houston. Those are the two teams on either side of Portland at the moment. Even if the Blazers don’t make the playoffs, this season will still be considered a success in my eyes if they end with a winning record, which is likely as long as they maintain this level of energy.

DJ:  The Timberwolves have had several connections to Portland, but one of the lesser-talked about links is Dante Cunningham, who has been beloved by fans in every city he’s played in. How does he endear himself to people so well?

BT: Dante was one of my favorite Blazers when he was here. He’s so easy to root for because he’s a very nose to the grindstone worker with a team-first mentality. He’s always ready to contribute when his number is called, and he adds defensive toughness and offensive resilience when he’s on the court. He can also be pretty hilarious on Twitter, which always adds points in my book. (Random side note about ex-Blazers – I hope you guys are enjoying Chris Johnson. Like Dante, he’s another player I will always root for. He’s such a hard worker who’s always eager to learn, and he’s a great teammate.) 

DJ: Portland has been dealing with some injuries of late, but how are they still dangerous to Minnesota? 

BT: I’m going to guess that Minnesota should be most afraid of Batum tonight. With all of the offseason drama surrounding his restricted free agency; his recent personal quest to prove he belongs on the All-Star team (see him more focused on his rebounds and assists); and his continued growing confidence in Stott’s free-flowing offense, Batum will definitely come out ready to play.

Even though Love is out, I expect Aldridge to come out motivated and dominant because there’s always that “who’s the best power forward in the West” question. Most usually rank Aldridge behind Love in that category, so I always expect him to play with a little bit more motivation when playing the Timberwolves, even with Love out. 

DJ:  Similarly, what worries you as a Blazers fan although they’re missing Kevin Love?

BT: I’m a little bit worried about the Hickson vs. Nikola Pekovic matchup. Hickson can hold his own, but Pek is very dominant, and when he’s having one of those, “I have all of the rebounds” nights, there’s not many rebounds left for the opposing center. The last time these two teams met, Pek had 21 points on 64% shooting and 15 rebounds in 22 minutes of play, while Hickson had 2 points on 1-10 shooting and 11 rebounds in about 29 minutes of play. Case closed on why Pek makes me nervous.

JJ Barea is another person who has caused Portland trouble in the past, especially from the three-point line. Portland’s perimeter defense is quite questionable at times, and Blazer fans are hoping Matthews’ ankle will allow him to play because they might need him to guard Barea if he’s having an on night.

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