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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Trail Blazers' smallish ;ineup 'special' against Phoenix Suns

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Damian Lillard goes to the basket for a shot against the Phoenix Suns.Observations after the Trail Blazers' 118-111 victory over Phoenix Tuesday night at Moda Center …

• The game wasn't as close as the final score indicated. After Jusuf Nurkic dunked off a Damian Lillard lob, Portland (23-21) led 85-58 with 5:03 remaining in the third quarter.

The Suns (14-29) never got closer than the final margin, but they kept chipping away, outscoring the Blazers 39-26 in the fourth quarter.

"It's a shame that the last five or six minutes put a damper on what was really a good game for us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I was disappointed I had to put the starters back in, but (the Suns) held in there, and Devin Booker is a hell of a player."

Booker and reserve guard Troy Daniels each hit 4 of 7 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter and the Suns were 9 for 16 from beyond the stripe over the final 12 minutes.

It was an extraordinary shooting display by Booker, 21, who bombed in 43 points, sinking 14 of 29 shots from the field, 5 of 12 from 3-point range and 10 of 10 at the free-throw line. He also had eight assists, six rebounds and two steals in 41 minutes.

Booker scored 13 points in the first quarter, seven in the second quarter, two in the third quarter (on 1-for-7 shooting) and 23 in the final period.

"Booker's really good," said Portland's Evan Turner, who had the defensive assignment much of the way. "He made a lot of tough shots. … shots four feet behind the line with someone in his face. You just pound him on the butt and tell him, 'Good shot.' But they never got quite close enough to make us sweat."

Booker became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a loss at Boston last March, a game in which then-coach Earl Watson called multiple timeouts and had players intentionally fouling in the final minutes to help him get to that standard.

"Everybody knows any guy who can go out there and score 70 — regardless of how you get it — can explode at any time," Lillard said. "He had a 20-point first half. When we separate ourselves from them (in the third quarter), we did a great job of holding him down. When the game got away from them, he started knocking down shots. But we kept them at a distance. It didn't have too much of an impact on the game."

• Lillard also had a big offensive game, going for 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting, including 4 for 8 from the 3-point line, and 5 for 5 from the foul line. It's the best he has looked in the four games since he returned from missing seven of nine games with hamstring and calf issues, and the most points he has scored since pouring in 39 against Golden State on Dec. 11.

"When I came back, I knew it would take some time to be able to move comfortably," said Lillard, who also had seven assists, five rebounds and only one turnover in 36 minutes. "The last three games, it's gotten better each game. In Minnesota (on Sunday), I felt really good moving around. Tonight I felt almost normal at times."

• The Blazers looked very much in sync offensively, shooting .505 from the field, .486 from 3-point range (17 for 35) and 9 for 10 at the foul line. They made their first eight shots from the field and led 36-31 after one quarter, 66-51 at the half and 92-72 after three quarters. Five players scored in double figures, led by Lillard and CJ McCollum with 27. McCollum was 9 for 18 from the field, 6 for 10 from 3-point range and 3 for 3 from the line.

"It was a special game for us offensively," said Turner, who had 12 points in 27 minutes. "We had a lot of guys in double figures, a lot of nice plays being made. We're trying to help ourselves out so we won't have to be in a dogfight every night."

• Stotts went to the three-guard lineup that has been effective in recent weeks, featuring Lillard, McCollum and backup point guard Shabazz Napier. Napier scored all of his 11 points in the first half and finished with six assists and one turnover in 20 minutes.

"It's been really good for us," Stotts said.

"I love it," Lillard said. "Having three guys play-making, it's a faster game. There's a lot for (opponents) to worry about the way 'Bazz' can get in the paint and finish and make plays. Same with myself and CJ. We play well off each other. It's threatening to other teams. It seems like every time we're out there, it's working for us."

"It gives us a different dynamic," McCollum said. "(Turner) been good for us this year, doing some different things, distributing the ball and giving us the post presence. But when he's in there with us, Shabazz has played well. He's done a great job of making decisions and knocking down shots. There's a lot of pressure on the defense when all three of us are out there."

It can leave Portland at a disadvantage against an opponent with bigger wings, though McCollum discounts that as a problem: "'Bazz' guards the 1, and we all match up from there. It puts the defense in a tough spot, because they have to guard us. We're all able to knock down shots."

• Lillard is tied with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook as the No. 9 scorer in the league with a 25.0-point average. The only guards ahead of them are Houston's James Harden (No. 1, 32.3) and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan (No. 8, 25.4).

Portland's captain also ranks seventh in free-throw percentage (.916) and 11th in assists (6.5). He is shooting .351 from 3-point range, in part because defenders aren't giving him much freedom beyond the arc.

"I can shoot a lot better than I have," Lillard said. "I take a lot of hard 3's, because I don't get the spot-up opportunities. Teams don't allow me to. So I have to get them when I can, and a lot of times, that's off the dribble.

"I don't think my percentage is a reflection of the shooter that I am. But I've had spurts where I've shot it pretty well. Lately, it feels good, but it hasn't gone in as much."

• Portland entered the game seventh in the NBA in defensive rating and tied for 20th in offensive rating. But the defensive rating has gone up while the offensive rating has gone down in recent weeks.

The Blazers have scored 110 points or more in eight of their last nine games, averaging 113.1. Over that span, opponents have averaged 113.8. Before that span, Portland had yielded 100.3 points per contest.

"I'm concerned the defense has slid a little bit," Stotts said before Tuesday's game. "Truth is, we've played some good offensive teams, too.

"Our transition defense has been better. Houston is an anomaly. We forget about the middle against them. They spread the court; we want to take away 3-point shooters. With (DeMarcus) Cousins and (Anthony) Davis, (the New Orleans Pelicans) present the opposite problem. Minnesota has multiple guys who can be very effective.

"Different teams present different problems. There's slippage during the season. Every team has it. You have to rely on your foundation."

Said Lillard: "I'm not the biggest fan of the numbers, because numbers can fool you. But I think our defense has slipped a little bit as the offense has gotten better. Tonight was a great effort of us having good execution and ball movement on the offensive end; also defending well. We're at the point where we're trying to sustain the level of offense we're at now, but also get our defense back to where we want it."

• Jusuf Nurkic played the first six minutes, then sat the rest of the first half, going scoreless. The 7-foot Bosnian started the third quarter and wound up collecting nine points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes.

Asked afterward if he thought Stotts was sending a message to his players, that minutes are earned and not given, Nurkic said, "No. If Terry was going to send me a message, he would tell me."

Lillard said the "Bosnian Beast" didn't have a cow over it.

"It's a little frustrating," Lillard said. "You're starting center and you don't play a whole lot. That happens (Tuesday night) based on the other team playing small, and he's such a big guy, it's hard for him to get up and down and he gets lost in all those pick-and-rolls defensively.

"I'm sure he was a little irritated by it, which he deserves to be. He deserves to be on the floor. But he didn't let it affect how he played. He still crashed the glass. He still came out and screened hard. He didn't let it affect his attitude."TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum takes off with the ball after making a steal off Troy Daniels (left) of the Phoenix Suns.

• The Blazers are in what appears to be a five-way battle for the final four playoff spots in the NBA Western Conference. Only 1 1/2 games separate No. 5 Oklahoma City (24-20) and the No. 9 L.A. Clippers (22-21). In between are No. 6 New Orleans (23-20) and Portland and Denver tied for seventh.

"I don't look at the standings," Turner said, "but it's boxed up right now, from what 'Dame' is saying. We just have to take care of business on our end. There are games we need to win going forward."

"Win three games, and you can go from ninth to fifth," Lillard mused with a grin. "But you can't get too caught up in it right now. It just puts pressure on yourself."

"This is an important stretch for us — 14 games left before the All-Star break," McCollum said. "We have some goals for how we want to finish, and I think we'll get there."

NOTES — The Blazers, who ended a three-game losing streak by beating Phoenix, play again Thursday night against Indiana at Moda Center. The Suns, going without injured starting forwards T.J. Warren and Marquese Chriss, have lost five of six. … Portland has won four straight at Moda Center, its longest home win streak of the season. … In a carefree mood afterward, McCollum revealed he was headed to "drink me some wine and eat good appetizers at one of my spots," he said. "I have one glass about every other night. We all have our vices, right?" … Lillard ranks seventh on the franchise career scoring list with 9,805 points. With 199 more points, he'll pass Jim Paxson (10,003) and reach No. 6.

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