The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves will get to know each other well in the next two weeks.
The teams square off Sunday (AEDT) at Moda Center, then meet again on April 3 in Minneapolis and on April 6 in Portland.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Portland coach Terry Stotts told reporters. “It’s as much a playoff experience as anything. By the third time we play them, there aren’t going to be any secrets. I don’t know if we’ve ever played a team three times in 12 days (during the regular season).”
The Trail Blazers (33-38), who have won nine of their last 12 games, are chasing Denver (34-38) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves (28-43) are five games behind Portland and have lost five in a row after a 130-119 overtime setback to the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night at Staples Center.
“We look at it as a mini-playoff series, like last year with the Clippers or the Warriors,” Portland guard Allen Crabbe said. “We’ll game plan, try to execute, then go back and watch (video) and figure out what we can do better for the next game with them.
“Our biggest focus is winning all three of those games. We understand the position we’re in. We didn’t plan to be in this position this late in the season, but it’s the position we’re in. We know it’s going to be a dogfight.”
The Blazers are going through their best stretch of the season at the right time.
“Everything is clicking for us at both ends,” Crabbe said. “Our biggest (shortcoming) this year has been about consistency. We’re trying to get that now. If we play at the level we’re capable of, we give ourselves a good chance. The way we look at it is, we have to win every single game we have left.”
Portland jumped to a 67-46 halftime lead over New York on Thursday night, then allowed the Knicks to whittle the margin to 10 points late in the game before winning 110-95.
“We know when we get a big lead, we have to keep that,” Portland center Jusuf Nurkic said. “We know we’re a playoff team, but we know we have to do better at that.”
The Blazers have eight of their final 11 games at home, but their record at the Moda Center this season is a mediocre 18-15.
“It helps,” Lillard said. “We have the best crowd in the NBA. We have a real home-court advantage.
“But you also have to understand, just because you’re on your home court, it’s not going to come easy. Teams are going to come in and compete.”
Portland usually beats Minnesota at home, having won 18 of the last 20 matchups at Moda Center dating to 2006.
The Timberwolves base their hopes largely on the talents of second-year center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds in Friday’s loss at Staples Center. Only one player age 21 or younger has averaged 24 points and 12 rebounds while shooting .500 from the field — Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1993-94. Towns, 21, is on pace to join Shaq, carrying averages of 24.6 points and 12.2 rebounds while shooting .534.
“I think I’ve become a smarter player from my rookie year,” Towns told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I’m smarter with the ball in my hands. I take my time more. I’m really happy I was able to grow from last year. Now I have to get better and better next year, and the year after that.”