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Finally whole in backcourt, Blazers hit road to face Wolves

Jan 2, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA;  Portland Trail Blazers guard Gary Payton II (00) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Detroit Pistons at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won 135-106. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have begun the new year with a jolt, thanks largely to the much-anticipated arrival of Gary Payton II.

Following Payton’s successful season debut, the Blazers open a three-game road trip against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday in Minneapolis.

After signing as a free agent last June, Payton missed the season’s first 35 games while recovering from surgery for a core muscle injury. The shooting guard played 13 minutes in Monday’s 135-106 win over the Detroit Pistons, finishing with seven points, four assists and one steal.

“I was tired of watching all my guys out there. The only way I can help out there is playing,” Payton said. “That was the biggest part of the frustration, that I can’t be out there in the moment. Now that I’m here, we had a hell of a game. We were just flying everywhere. The energy is contagious, it just gets everybody going.”

Portland turned in a complete effort with Jerami Grant scoring 36 points, Anfernee Simons adding 30, and Damian Lillard recording 19 points, 10 assists and four steals.

The Blazers’ defense should benefit from Payton’s arrival. The seventh-year pro is known for his high energy on both ends of the floor.

“It sets a tone with the team he’s out there playing with,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “You see a guy doing those type of things, diving on the floor and kicking it up for the steal — if you don’t match that level of intensity, you look bad. It changes things for you.”

Portland has won the first two meetings this season against Minnesota, which snapped a six-game losing streak with a 124-111 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday.

“What I saw was just a team that was more urgent, was more desperate and wanted it more,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “Usually that team is going to win the game.”

The short-handed Wolves were led by guard Anthony Edwards, who scored 29 points, including 15 in the third quarter.

Minnesota won despite playing without D’Angelo Russell (illness) and Naz Reid (low back spasms). Both are listed as day-to-day, while Karl-Anthony Towns (right calf strain) and Jordan McLaughlin (left calf strain) are out indefinitely. Taurean Prince (right shoulder subluxation) is questionable.

After their demoralizing losing skid, the Wolves responded with an inspired effort against Denver. Jaden McDaniels had 21 points and Kyle Anderson added 19.

“Very, very proud of our guys after the weekend,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said. “Obviously, we desperately needed a win, regardless of who we had playing or who we were playing. It was a total team win. Everybody who came in contributed, executed the game plan to a high level. Played with toughness, played together. It was really fun to watch.”

Minnesota is looking to avenge a 133-112 loss to Portland on Dec. 12, when Lillard made 11 3-pointers and finished with 38 points. It was the second of the Wolves’ consecutive defeats to the Blazers in a back-to-back in the Pacific Northwest.

In 35 career games against Minnesota, Lillard has scored 20-plus points 26 times, including his last eight matchups.

The Blazers have also received steady production in the series from center Jusuf Nurkic, who has recorded double-doubles in five of his last eight games against the Wolves.

–Field Level Media