Timberwolves 97, Trail Blazers 78

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Kevin Garnett put special emphasis on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ late-season game against the Trail Blazers.

Garnett had 16 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists as the Timberwolves closed the gap for fourth place in the Western Conference with a 97-78 victory over the Trail Blazers on Sunday night.

“I told the guys before the game that this is the first game of the playoffs,” Garnett said. “We lose this and we’re out of the race for the fourth seed.”

The Timberwolves won the season series 3-1 and pulled virtually even with Portland for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Blazers (47-29) still lead Minnesota (48-30) by .003 percentage points.

It was Garnett’s NBA-leading sixth triple-double this season, and 12th of his career.

“That makes our team very tough to beat,” teammate Wally Szczerbiak said.

The Timberwolves briefly fell behind in the third quarter but went on a 10-2 run midway through the fourth to go up 81-71. Gary Trent capped the run with six straight points.

Szczerbiak had 25 points for Minnesota, which had lost four of its previous five and was coming off a 111-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns the night before.

Rasheed Wallace had 23 points and nine rebounds for Portland.

“We all understand the importance of home-court advantage, so as we approach our road trip maybe this will give us some incentive and have a lot more energy than we had tonight,” said Portland coach Maurice Cheeks, whose team is embarking on a three-game road trip.

But as usual with the Blazers, the focus Sunday wasn’t just on their play.

The game marked the return of reserve forward Zach Randolph, who was suspended for two games and fined $100,000 for punching teammate Ruben Patterson in the face during practice earlier this week.

Randolph entered the game with about three minutes left in the first quarter to boos from the crowd. Patterson came into the game a minute and a half later.

Patterson said earlier that he accepted Randolph’s apology and vowed not to retaliate.

“He’s my teammate, he made a mistake, and I can’t retaliate, trying to fight him or beat him up, because I’m on probation, so I would get in trouble,” Patterson said.

While the attention was on Randolph and Patterson, the Timberwolves built a 24-16 lead on Rasho Nesterovic’s fast-break slam with 1:16 left in the first quarter and hook shot less than a minute later.

Minnesota extended its lead to as many as 11 points in the first half, but Portland’s Derek Anderson hit a 3-pointer with 7 seconds left to narrow it to 41-36 at the break.

Wallace’s nine straight points—two 3-pointers and three free throws— briefly put the Trail Blazers ahead 47-45.

It was short-lived. The Timberwolves came back to go up 67-60 on Troy Hudson’s 22-foot jumper.

Randolph’s punch was the latest in a string of problems the Trail Blazers have had on and off the court this season.

Just in the past week, rookie Qyntel Woods was cited for marijuana possession following a traffic stop in Portland, while Wallace settled a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge from a traffic stop in Washington back in November.

“At some point we have to put our off-court activities aside and not use them as an excuse,” Cheeks said. “Certainly we’ve been through thisbefore.”

Notes

Patterson is on probation for a modified guilty plea he entered involving charges of sexual assault on his nanny. … Blazers team owner Paul Allen, who rarely comments to the media, said the team will address unacceptable player conduct head-on. “The community deserves a team of which we can all be proud and I am fully committed to improving the Blazers’ conduct on and off the court,” he wrote to The Oregonian newspaper. … The Timberwolves have four games left, playing Wednesday at Seattle before hosting the Clippers and Bulls and wrapping up on the road at Memphis. The Blazers have it a bit tougher, with road games against Houston, San Antonio and Memphisbefore ending with Phoenix and the Lakers at home.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Minnesota
K. Garnett K. Garnett
8-15,  16 Pts
14 Rebs, 12 Assists
 Portland
R. Wallace R. Wallace
6-13,  23 Pts
9 Rebs, 1 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists