PORTLAND, Oregon — The Minnesota Timberwolves will have the edge in momentum when they square off with the Portland Trail Blazers for the third time in five weeks Saturday night at Moda Center.
The Timberwolves, who have won nine of their last 12 games since trading Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia, cruised past Charlotte 121-104 Wednesday to go above .500 (13-12) for the first time all season.
A victory over Portland (14-11) would draw Minnesota even with the Trail Blazers in the tight Western Conference race. The Blazers, who had lost three in a row and eight of 11, got back on the winning track with a 108-86 dismantling of the woeful Phoenix Suns Thursday at Moda Center.
Before the Butler trade, Portland had its way with Minnesota in a 111-81 romp on Nov. 4 at Moda Center. The reconfigured Timberwolves, with Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the fold, got revenge in a 112-96 pasting of the Blazers on Nov. 16 at Target Center.
“We got a win (against the Suns),” Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. “We did some good things. Now we have to build on it going against a team that is playing really well. (The Timberwolves) played well against us not too long ago on their floor. It will be a good test for us, to see if we’re going in the right direction.”
A key for the Timberwolves could be the performance of their young stars, center Karl-Anthony Towns and swing man Andrew Wiggins. Both have played well of late.
The 7-foot Towns collected 35 points and 12 rebounds and matched his career high with six blocked shots in the win over the Hornets. Over the last eight games, Towns has averaged 24.3 points and 11.5 rebounds.
“He is demanding the ball on the offensive end,” said point guard Jeff Teague, who had 18 assists against Charlotte. “He is our anchor on the defensive end. He is calling out the screens, playing hard, contesting every shot. That’s what an All-NBA guy can do.”
“He’s everywhere,” Wiggins added, something that could be said about him, as well, of late.
Wiggins, who was shooting 37 percent from the field the first 18 games of the season, has caught fire. Over the last three games, the 6-8 Wiggins is averaging 19.7 points while shooting .524 from the field and .538 from 3-point range. That was capped by his best performance of the season, in which he totaled 26 points, six rebounds and five assists against Charlotte.
“He is playing very aggressively right now, and we need him downhill, attacking, not hesitating on his shot,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Defensively, he is flying around. The more he’s in motion, the better it is for us.”
The Blazers are hoping that Jake Layman continues the hot hand he displayed in the win over the Suns.
Through Portland’s first 19 games, Layman was Portland’s starting small forward, playing small minutes but still making contributions at the offensive end, shooting .513 from the field and .385 from 3-point range.
Then coach Terry Stotts inserted Moe Harkless – the starting small forward a year ago who missed the first 12 games of this season with a knee injury – into the lineup. Instead of bringing Layman off the bench, Stotts sat him for five straight games.
Having not played a minute since Nov. 23, Layman came off the bench against Phoenix and delivered a career-high 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
“I was happy for him,” Stotts said. One of my assistants said, ‘It was good karma.’ He came out of the starting lineup, had a good attitude, worked hard, knew he was going to get an opportunity at some point and remained positive while he wasn’t playing. Then he took advantage of the opportunity when it came.”
“It speaks to the kind of player he is and how committed he is to our team and trusting our coaching staff,” Lillard said. “It would be easy for a guy to be like, ‘I was playing well, I was in the lineup, and now I’m not playing.’ But he was prepared. His mind was in the right place. He came in and impacted the game from the start.”
Portland was without its No. 2 scorer, shooting guard CJ McCollum, for the Phoenix game. McCollum, who sprained an ankle against Dallas on Tuesday, is probably for Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota.
With our without McCollum, the Blazers know they’ll have their hands full.
“Usually when a team makes a trade, it brings new life, new energy,” Portland center Jusuf Nurkic said. “That’s happened with them. They have a fresh start. They’re playing well. They’ve won a lot of games lately. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”