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Timberwolves fall to fatigue and Portland

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The Timberwolves have to compete extraordinarily hard to give themselves even the remotest chance of winning; when they don't, its obvious.They were visibly fatigued during Saturday night's 110-91 blowout at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers, having played four games in five nights and eight in the past 12 (they've won only once in that time, in Miami on Tuesday).   And now Dallas, Denver, San Antonio, Phoenix, Houston and the Lakers all loom. How does Kurt Rambis prevent this team from despairing, from hanging their heads and listlessly playing out the string? Well, he's urging his young club to "use the rest of the season as a learning opportunity," to rise to the level of competitiveness and energy shown by all of these playoff contending teams. We'll see if this is possible.    

Things began well for the Wolves. Marcus Camby (who was recently acquired by Portland to fill the gaps left by injuries to Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla) is the type of long, athletic defender that is typically able to swallow Al Jefferson up. But in the first quarter Camby looked old and tired; Jefferson was able to get into Camby's body and draw him into his web of spins, drop steps and pump fakes. Al hit six of his first eight shots, but the most encouraging thing was the way he went about it. He would quickly aggressively get position on Camby under the basket and present himself for an early entry pass. Jefferson is drastically tougher to guard and more efficient the closer he is to the basket; what's more, catching the ball in the paint causes him to act decisively and confidently, to get his shots without stalling the offense. If Big Al is ever going to fit properly in Rambis's offense, this is how it will look.

Mount Doom

But it couldn't last. In the second quarter, the Wolves presented the world with their worst offensive quarter of the season, scoring 10 points on 23.5% shooting and committing nine turnovers. The Wolves are accustomed to Jonny Flynn's erratic decision-making and periods of aimless play (they should be, anyway) but when Ramon Sessions has an off night with the second unit, when neither of the point guards can settle the team into a rhythm, then things get messy. This is what happened on Saturday. Sessions, playing the bulk of the second-quarter minutes, was off-target with his passing and his shooting; the Wolves couldn't get good looks and the Blazers ran out for easy baskets.

But after three blowout losses to the Blazers, by an average margin of over 22 points, we might have to conclude that this matchup is really not in the Wolves favor. Even without Oden and Pryzbilla, the Blazers are just much longer and leaner and more athletic than Wolves, particularly in the frontcourt. When we conside that the Wolves' answer for Camby, Lamarcus Aldridge and Nicholas Batum is Jefferon, Kevin Love and either Ryan Hollins or Darko Milicic, we should probably just accept that there is very little the Wolves can do to be competitive against this team.

It gets worse. The Blazers are perhaps the most patient and disciplined offensive team in the league. They commit themselves to moving the ball throughout a possession, using every second of shot clock to interpret and manipulate the defense and to create an open look. Against a team like the Wolves, who are still struggling to grasp their defensive concepts, and who have difficulty making smart, aggressive defensive rotations, this patience and commitment is pure poison. Whenever the Wolves tried to double team or pressure the ball, the Blazers seemed invariably, after snapping the ball inside and out and around the perimeter, to find the open shooter.

This in sharp contrast to the other end of the floor. Because the Wolves tend to be so tentative and unintuitive in their ball movement--and because the Blazers can be just as aggressive and disciplined on defense as they are on offense--they (the Wolves) were rarely able to find an open shooter before a Portland defender could arrive to deny him a shot. The Blazers play a much different game than even the ideal Rambis team--much slower paced, much more structured--but in their relentless, fluid ball movement, in their poise and commitment on defense, they're a team well worth emulating.