If we were being realistic, that was about as good a road trip as we could have probably envisioned for the Portland Trail Blazers.
A 3-1 stretch on the road -- where the Blazers had struggled mightily this season -- that left them in seventh place in the Western Conference standings?
Yeah, Portland fans will take that, no question.
The Blazers capped their four-games-in-five-nights road trip with a 102-97 victory over the shorthanded Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night, winning for the 10th time in their past 13 games to move three games over the .500 mark.
Portland continues improving at the little things, doing what needs to be done to pull out close games. On Saturday, against a Minnesota team that was missing Kevin Love (hand) and Ricky Rubio (back), the Blazers took a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter, then withstood a late Timberwolves rally to walk away with the win.
The 'Wolves scratched and clawed their way to within two points, using a 7-0 run that started with 1:38 left in the game and ended less than 20 seconds later, at the 1:19 mark, with a Derrick Williams dunk that made it 96-94 Portland.
But the Blazers did what they needed to do, getting a big shot from LaMarcus Aldridge with 37 seconds left and then two free throws each from Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum to close it out. Williams hit a 3 with 4 seconds left, when the game was effectively over.
It's easy to point to Portland having given up that big fourth-quarter lead as a sign of a young team that's just not quite there yet, but it was clear that the Timberwolves had one last big run in them in the fourth quarter, and the Blazers not only withstood it, they pulled out a tight game in the final minutes with some clutch play.
And in the process, they didn't look like the young team that they are, but rather one that's getting more and more comfortable playing together and gutting out wins, even on the road.
Indeed, the Blazers are now a more-respectable 7-11 away from the Rose Garden, after having been 4-10 before this road trip began.
Batum and Matthews were huge in this one, not only for their late free throws; each scored 26 points against Minnesota. Damian Lillard had 20 and LaMarcus Aldridge 14, giving those four a combined 86 points on a night when starting center J.J. Hickson struggled from the field, going just 1-for-10 and scoring two points to go with his 11 rebounds.
Despite Hickson's off night, the Blazers still shot 43 percent (37-for-86) from the field, including a scorching 66.7 percent (16-for-24) from 3-point range and a blistering 92.3 percent (12-for-13) from the free-throw line.
The Blazers are going to win a lot of games shooting that well from downtown and from the foul line, particularly if they continue displaying the type of savvy they showed in pulling out a close one, on the road, on Saturday night.
Adam Sparks has followed the Portland Trail Blazers since the early 1980s, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.
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