The Trail Blazers seemed overmatched from the start of their game Thursday night against Minnesota. The Timberwolves led 12-2 and 20-9 to open the game and you had to wonder how Portland could get off so poorly in such an important game. Minnesota would stretch the lead to 15 with 9:39 to go in the third quarter and this game looked lost.
But in the fourth quarter, Portland's defense became more aggressive and a friendly officiating crew allowed it to get away with some roughthouse tactics at that end of the floor. The Timberwolves suddenly couldn't score and forgot their best option on offense -- getting the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns at the low post against the little Portland guys who were trying in vain to defend him.
But that wouldn't have mattered much -- the Trail Blazers probably still would have lost this game -- if Allen Crabbe hadn't suddenly gone nuts on the Timberwolves from three-point range.
Crabbe scored 10 points in 48 seconds early in the fourth quarter. Up to that point, Portland's offense was flat-out broken and had disintegrated into a lot of one-on-one stuff that proved largely ineffective. Damian Lillard had another troubling shooting night (7-21 from the field, including 1-9 from three-point range to go with four turnovers) and there was little ball movement or player movement.
A loss in this game, I believe, would have signaled the end of Portland's late-season dash for a playoff spot -- obliterated by Jusuf Nurkic's leg fracture. And make no mistake, Nurkic -- and really not a lot else -- was the reason for the Trail Blazers' sudden late-season turnaround. He made his teammates better to a shocking degree and the evidence, before he arrived and after his injury -- is clear.
But Allen Crabbe rode to the rescue with those three-point shots Thursday night in Moda Center. He won them that game just about single-handedly. And I believe that was probably enough to get Portland the eighth seed in the West. The magic number is down to 2 and even if the Blazers can't win another game, it's highly possible Denver has a couple more losses coming its way.
The good news is that now we really know how important Nurkic is. What a find he was. What a future he brings. How much better he makes this team. And we also know that without him, this team doesn't appear to be very good.