L.A. returns and Blazers spank NBA riffraff again
There are stretches of schedules in the NBA where good teams have a single motive:
Just win, baby.
The Trail Blazers are in that mode right now. A perfunctory 102-96 victory over Denver Saturday night at the Moda Center lifted Portland's record to 41-18, meaning the Blazers could go winless through the final 23 games of the regular season and still finish .500.
That's not going to happen, of course.
Portland has won five in a row while facing no teams with winning records, four of the games at home. That should improve to seven straight with two more home dates -- vs. the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday and Atlanta on Wednesday -- before the local quintet embarks on a very testy five-game road trip that starts Friday at Dallas.
Coach Terry Stotts called Saturday's win over the injury-riddled Nuggets -- 25-33 and losers of 10 of 11 -- "solid."
"We did a lot of good things," Stotts said. "I felt like we were in control of the game for the most part."
That was true in no small part to Denver being without three of its best players -- Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari, the latter lost for the entire season due to a knee injury.
Saturday's win secured Portland's first 4-0 sweep of its season series with Denver since 1996-97 and turned things around from a year ago, when the Nuggets -- who finished 57-25 -- won three of four in the series.
"I don't know how much you can read into that," Stotts said. "They're not the same team they were last year. They have a lot of injuries. Gallinari, Lawson and (the traded Andre) Iguodala were instrumental in their success last year. But I like where we're going."
Portland won despite making 5 of 27 shots from 3-point range. The Blazers, who entered the game fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (.382), won the game on the boards and at the free-throw line.
In Tuesday's 100-95 win at Denver, the Blazers were dominated on the glass 64-41, with the Nuggets grabbing 27 at the offensive end. On Saturday night, Portland ruled the boards 52-40, a turnaround of a net-39.
"After the game in Denver, that got our attention," Stotts said. "It was a focus tonight. For us to get 43 defensive rebounds and them 10 at the offensive end, it's a pretty impressive rebounding night for us."
Center Robin Lopez said Denver's eye-popping rebound numbers in the Tuesday encounter "was a freakish spike in the trend. Things evened out tonight."
Portland was 23 for 24 at the foul line, the Nuggets 23 for 35.
"That was the difference in the game," said Brian Shaw, Denver's first-year coach. "You lose by six points and you miss 12 free throws."
Portland celebrated the return of LaMarcus Aldridge, who had missed the previous five games with a groin strain. The Blazers' All-Star power forward had 16 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes, looking sharp at times and rusty at others.
"My timing was a little off, but it felt good to be back out there playing with the guys," said Aldridge, who made 7 of 15 shots from the field and committed four turnovers. "I'm a little tired, but my body felt good, my conditioning felt good."
Aldridge's presence opened things up for his teammates at the offensive end.
"You bring back a 24 and 12 guy, it changes everything," Portland forward Nicolas Batum said. "We got more shots all over the court. It was big for us."
Batum was big for the Blazers, too, filling up the statistical sheet with nine points, six assists and a career-high 16 rebounds. The 6-8 small forward was only 3 for 10 from the field and 1 for 5 from 3-point range, but made his presence felt as usual.
"It's funny with Nic," Stotts noted. "Everybody wants him to be more aggressive. Tonight, he got 16 rebounds. It would have been nice if he could have gotten a triple-double.
"I don't know how many times I've said it in the last year and a half -- he does a little bit of everything, depending on the game."
"That's who I am," Batum shrugged. "When I don't score, I can do a little bit of everything. My shot wouldn't fall, so I tried to be aggressive, tried to get some assists."
In this game, the Blazers needed Batum's board work.
"After the last game (with Denver), I knew rebounding was my job," he said. "I had to play like a big man inside tonight."
NOTES: Portland moved to within three games of Oklahoma City (44-15) for the best record in the Western Conference. The Blazers are 1 1/2 games behind San Antonio (42-16) and a game ahead of Houston (40-19). Portland is 12-3 against Northwest Division rivals this season. No other NBA team has more than 10 wins with its division. The Blazers have one more division games this season -- at Utah on April 11. If they win, they'll tie the best in-division record in Northwest Division history. Portland backup center Meyers Leonard, who had missed the previous five games with a sprained ankle, had eight points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. Still missing from the Blazers' frontcourt are reserve front-liner Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson, both out with knee injuries. Lopez scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. It's the first time Lopez, who matched his season high, has led the Blazers in scoring all season. Damian Lillard was 7 for 13 from the field and finished with 17 points and five rebounds. He had two assists after getting none in Thursday's blowout win over Brooklyn. Stotts used 10 players, including Victor Claver off the bench. Rookie CJ McCollum was a DNP-CD (did not play/coach's decision).
Denver's starting backcourt, Randy Foye and Aaron Brooks, combined to shoot 8 for 26 from the field. The Nuggets shot .398 from the field, .304 (7 for 23) from 3-point range and .657 from the line. Portland has held four straight opponents to a field-goal percentage under 40 for the first time since February 2005. Shaw -- who turns 48 on March 22 and retired as a player in 2003 -- suited up and went through drills with his players during Saturday's shootaround. "Every once in awhile I try to do that to get the guys more engaged," Shaw said. "They seem to want to go harder when they go against me."