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Blazers nearly blow big lead, but still win

The SportsXchange

MINNEAPOLIS - In a matter of minutes, the Portland Trail Blazers went from cruise control to crisis, from a comfortable lead to a nail-biting finish.

"The fourth quarter didn't go the way we wanted it to,'' Blazers coach Terry Stotts deadpanned after his team's 100-98 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday.

Down 19 after three quarters at Target Center, the Timberwolves scored on 21 of their first 23 possessions of the fourth quarter, storming back to within a point twice, first on J.J. Barea's layup with 36.9 seconds left, then on Dante Cunningham's dunk at 21.9 seconds. But, as has happened so often for the Wolves this season, they couldn't get over the hump and the Blazers found a way to win.

LaMarcus Aldridge answered Barea's layup with a 21-foot jumper, then blocked Ricky Rubio's shot with 7.9 seconds left and the Blazers held on for the two-point victory.

Aldridge broke out of a two-game shooting slump, hitting 12 of 17 shots for 25 points to go along with 13 rebounds. Wesley Matthews, playing on a sore ankle that had kept him out of a game, had 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting, and rookie Damian Lillard had 21.

The Blazers shot 58.6 percent, and they needed to shoot well, considering they committed 28 turnovers, including seven as the Wolves stormed back in the final quarter.

"I'm not mad about the turnovers, but we have to clean that up," Stotts said. "It's a learning process. But to win on the road isn't easy. We needed this to start the road trip."

The Wolves had hoped they'd carry some momentum from Saturday's blowout win over New Orleans. But it didn't happen until the fourth quarter. And so another late rally came up just short.

"We can't come out and play for 30 minutes in a 48-minutes game," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. "And we did that. We had no energy at the start."

The Blazers (25-23), who won for the third time in four games, started strong, leading by seven after a quarter, by 11 at the half and by 19 entering the fourth after finishing the third quarter on a 20-4 run.

But in the fourth quarter everything changed. Going with a small lineup with guards Rubio, Barea and Alexey Shved, the Wolves executed the pick and roll to perfection while coming back.

Cunningham had 17 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, and Barea 11 of his 17 points in the period. Rubio had 10 of his 14 assists in that final quarter.

The Wolves cut the deficit to single digits on Cunningham's 15-footer with 3:10 left. Then margin shrunk to seven, to five, then to three on Nikola Pekovic's lay-up at 57.1.

Lillard's third turnover of the quarter resulted in Barea's laup and a one-point game. Out of a timeout, Lillard and Aldridge played a perfect pick-and-roll, resulting in Aldridge's 21-footer. But Cunningham came right back with a dunk. Luke Babbitt hit one of two free throws for Portland with 21 seconds left, and that finished the scoring.

At the other end Aldridge stopped Rubio.

"I knew he was going to try to lull me to sleep," Aldridge said. "I kinda waited on it, and blocked it."

Fouled with 6.7 second left, Aldridge missed both free throws. Coming out of a time out, Cunningham's 18-footer came up short. It gave Portland got a much-needed road win.

"We seem to do that every time we play Minnesota," said Matthews, who has averaged 26 points in three games vs. the Wolves. "We have to shore that up. We can't have 28 turnovers and think we're going to win."

The Wolves lost for the 12th time in 14 games.

"We didn't learn our lesson from the games before," said Rubio (15 points, 14 assists), who got his first double-double of the season. "It's hard, hard to figure out. We have to start harder if we want to win.''

NOTES: Though he was not 100 percent, Matthews returned from an injured right ankle to start Monday, after missing just one game. "The pain is going down a lot," said Matthews, who had the ankle heavily wrapped. "(There are) still certain movements that I'm sure will irritate it, but it's going to irritate it." Neither Ronnie Price (right ankle) nor Sasha Pavlovic (left foot) played. ... Adelman likes how his guards have settled into a rotation, with Luke Ridnour and Rubio starting and Barea and Shved coming off the bench. But he wants Ridnour and Shved to do more ball-handling. ... NBA commissioner David Stern will be in Minneapolis for Wednesday's game between the Wolves and the San Antonio Spurs. ... The Wolves are leaning toward keeping both Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson, whose 10-day contracts are up Thursday, for the rest of the season. If both are kept, one roster spot would have to be created.
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