Blazers hit stride
Winning is coming more easily these days for the Trail Blazers — three in a row overall, and six straight at home.
There are several reasons, but none more than a healthy Damian Lillard.
Lillard scored 31 points and set the tone for Portland's 117-108 victory over Dallas Saturday night at Moda Center.
The Blazers' meal ticket made his first nine shots from the field — including seven 3-pointers — not missing until he was blocked on a driving layup in the final minute of the third quarter. Lillard finished 10 for 15 from the field, 7 for 9 from 3-point range and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line, also contributing nine assists and five rebounds in a 38-minute masterpiece.
"Efficient," said Portland coach Terry Stotts of Lillard's game.
It was the first time in his career Lillard has scored more than 30 points on 15 or fewer field-goal attempts.
"I felt good tonight," Lillard said. "My first shot of the game was the toughest, but when it left my hands, it felt good. I just had a good rhythm."
During a nine-game stretch in late December and early January, Lillard sat out seven games with leg injuries. In the six games since his return, he has scored at least 20 points every game while averaging 26.8 points and 8.0 assists, shooting .505 from the field and .898 from the line.
"Each game I'm feeling better and better, getting my burst back," Lillard said. "And I missed some time, so I'm also fresh. I'm able to do what I have to do."
Lillard is making a strong statement in candidacy for a berth in the NBA All-Star Game. He ranks eighth in the league in scoring (25.2), fourth in free-throw percentage (.920) and 11th in assists (6.6).
Teammate Evan Turner — on his fourth team in eight NBA seasons — offered the strongest of endorsements afterward.
"I don't think I've been around somebody who is so good and such a great leader," Turner said of Lillard. "He's an accountable individual. He doesn't get too high or too low. That's very rare in this league. He's a man who stands for something, and he does his thing."
Lillard had plenty of help Saturday night, notably from backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who poured in 26 points, and Turner, who scored 12 of his 17 points in the first half as the Blazers (25-21) mounted a 62-45 lead.
The Mavericks (15-31) didn't quit, clawing their way back with a fourth-quarter rally that brought them to within five points in the final minute. The Blazers held them off, though, and finished the game shooting .523 from the field and .500 (18 for 36) from beyond the arc.
"Good way to finish a homestand (3-0)," Stotts said. "I liked our first half offensively, and defensively we were really good. The second half, (the Mavericks) got a lot of momentum. But we fought through some challenging moments and came through it all right."
One of those moments came late in the game when centers Jusuf Nurkic of Portland and Salah Mejri of Dallas got locked up underneath the Mavericks' basket after Mejri's shot was blocked by Nurkic. Turner was called for a pushing foul on the play, and in the aftermath, Mejri dropped to the floor as if leveled by a haymaker. Replays showed he may be due for a flopping fine, but Nurkic drew a technical foul in the process.
"(Mejri) got fouled, but then he locked my arm on purpose, and I didn't like it," Nurkic said. "He almost broke it. I just let him know — dirty plays, I don't like them."
Said Mejri: "I play this way every game. … Please, show me one time where I hurt somebody or gave a cheap shot. How many cheap shots did I get tonight — three? Four? I'm doing nothing wrong. I'm blocking shots."
Mejri was getting his shot blocked this time, though, and if there were cheap shots leveled, they weren't noticeable in this game.
Nurkic and his teammates now turn their attention to Monday's visit to Denver, the team that traded the 7-foot Bosnian to Portland last February. The Blazers and Nuggets have met three times since the trade, but all the games have been at Moda Center.
"That's a game I look forward to, definitely," Nurkic said. "Super excited for Monday. Looking for another win."
Lillard hopes Nurkic can handle the moment.
"I don't want him to put too much pressure on himself," Lillard said. "I know it's his first time back in Denver, but the emotions of playing against that team should be gone.
"I'm sure he wants to win and he wants to play well. He can do that by playing the way he always does."
The Blazers are in sixth place in the Western Conference and the Nuggets (23-23) are in ninth place, so Monday's game has extra meaning in the standings as well. A win would draw the Nuggets to within a game of Portland.
"Whenever we play the teams in the four to nine range (in the West), it counts double," Portland forward Ed Davis said. "We know that. They're coming off a tough loss, so they're going to be ready for us. We'll be ready for them."
After a road trip in which the Blazers lost the last three of a four-game set, they have bounced back to win three in a row at home.
"Our team, like we always do, we just stay with it through the good and the bad," Lillard said. "When you do that and stay together and keep believing, it will come back. It feels like it's coming back."
NOTES: Former Blazers guard Wesley Matthews led Dallas with 23 points while veteran Dirk Nowitzki, who turns 40 in June, and rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr., 20, each chipped in 21. … Lillard had 18 points at halftime on 6-for-6 shooting, including 4 of 4 on 3-pointers. … Davis had six points and a team-high 10 rebounds — five off the offensive glass — in 24 minutes off the bench. "Ed made a difference," Stotts said. "He gave us extra possessions, and defensively, he continues to hold the fort inside." … Portland's 18 3-pointers tied a season high. … The Blazers have scored 110 points or more in nine of their last 11 games.