MINNEAPOLIS (TICKER) —In a game they considered pivotal, the Minnesota Timberwolves had a pair of players step up in the pivot.
Wally Szczerbiak scored 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and Kevin Garnett had his fifth triple-double of the season for the Timberwolves (43-26), who have never had home-court advantage in the playoffs. They moved within one-half game of the Trail Blazers (42-24) for fourth place in the Western Conference.
“I can rarely remember since I’ve been here that we’ve said, ‘This is a must-win game.’ We told our guys yesterday, ‘This is a must-win game,’” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. “If we had any visions of getting to No. 4, we have to win this game.”
Minnesota has made the playoffs six straight years but has lost in the first round each time. The Timberwolves are starting to realize that if they are to break that drought, they will need home-court advantage and all the benefits that come along with it.
“This was a big one,” Szczerbiak said. “We’re chasing Portland and we knew we had to do whatever we had to do to get this win. We did that today, but we can’t relax.”
Minnesota knew it would not have any chance to relax Sunday since it is without Nesterovic, a 7-footer who could be sidelined as much as two weeks with a sprained right ankle suffered Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Smith started in place of Nesterovic and had 12 points and five rebounds. But a more prominent role was played by Jackson, a third-year center who came off the bench to play 28 minutes - eight more than Smith - and collect five points and 12 rebounds.
“If you look at our center spot, with both (Marc) and Joe, we got great production out of that spot,” Saunders said. “Marc took advantage of the opportunity given to him.”
“Marc Jackson really came in and hurt us,” Portland coach Maurice Cheeks said. “Marc Jackson and Szczerbiak were the difference in the game. Szczerbiak made some shots.”
The Timberwolves led 74-67 after three quarters before Szczerbiak scored three 3-pointers in a 31-14 spurt over the first 9 1/2 minutes of the final period that gave Minnesota a comfortable 105-81 edge.
“We were saying ‘Good job on Szczerbiak at halftime. I think he had two points and then he comes in with 20,” Cheeks said. “He stepped up his level of play.”
Two of the 3-pointers came in a 17-second span midway through the final quarter that gave the Timberwolves a 95-75 lead. Anthony Peeler and rookie Mike Wilks also added 3-pointers in the decisive fourth-quarter run.
Garnett collected 17 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds for Minnesota, which won for just the third time in its last eight games. Troy Hudson had 13 points and Peeler 10 for the Timberwolves, who had lost the first two games of a four-game homestand.
“We really wanted to make a statement today, but they came out and made a statement,” said Portland guard Jeff McInnis, who had 12 points after missing Friday’s game against Philadelphia with a broken nose. “That would be a great series.”
Neither team led by more than four points in the tightly played first half. The Timberwolves opened a 12-point lead with 7:48 left in the third period on a three-point play by Garnett, but the Blazers were able to cut it to six at 67-61 on a layup by Bonzi Wells, who finished with 11 points.