by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - Wesley Matthews' shooting helped carry the Trail Blazers to a road win at San Antonio on Friday, as Portland opened a key four-game trip through the best of the NBA Western Conference.SAN ANTONIO -- Big wins midway through the regular season don't define a team.

It's not going out on a limb, though, to say the Trail Blazers' 109-100 victory over San Antonio Friday night at AT&T Center was their most meaningful one so far this season.

Even with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich working himself into enough of a rage to get tossed out in the third quarter.

Even with regular starters Tiago Splitter and Danny Green missing with injuries and Tony Parker a game-time decision due to a painful shin bruise.

Even with the Spurs (31-9) now owning a 1-8 record against teams that have won 65 percent or more of their games this season.

It still ranks in the "colossal" category, as the Blazers opened a rugged four-game trip the right way.

"To beat the best team in the West right now, on their floor?" Portland coach Terry Stotts asked rhetorically. "That sticks out."

Portland (30-9) outduked perhaps the most mentally tough, most battle-tested team in the NBA down the stretch, outscoring the Spurs 32-22 while sinking 12 of 20 shots -- including 4 of 6 from 3-point range -- in the fourth quarter.

Each of the Blazers' starters earned a gold star on his helmet for his part in a physical, get-after-it-for-48-minutes battle that LaMarcus Aldridge called "like a playoff road game."

Stotts wouldn't go that far.

"It's NBA basketball," Portland's second-year coach said. "San Antonio plays that way. We need to play that way. We didn't back down. We stayed aggressive and did what we needed to do.

"The playoffs are another level, but you could sense there were two of the top teams going at it."

The going was "really intense," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "The team that backed down, you automatically lose. Neither team did that tonight."

The Blazers survived a San Antonio charge after Popovich was ejected for the first time this season early in the third quarter, protesting vehemently a series of non-calls on what he felt was a patch of Blazer too-rough stuff. After referee Mark Ayotte whistled Popovich for one technical, the veteran coach -- who turns 65 on Jan. 28 -- had to be restrained by assistant coaches. While he bellowed some more, referee Bill Kennedy signaled Popovich for an early exit.

Those in the Blazer camp felt Popovich got thrown out intentionally to light a fire under his troops.

"I always have my reasons," is all Popovich would say by way of explanation.

"Looked like he wanted to get tossed, because he just kept going off," Lillard said. "I knew that would spark their team."

It did.

When Lillard made the free throws after the technicals, Portland's lead was 67-55. Seven minutes later, after Manu Ginobili somehow spun in a driving layup as the third quarter expired, the Spurs were in front 78-77.

Popovich "just wanted to give us a boost," said Parker, who scored only two of his 12 points in the second half. "It worked pretty well."

"The momentum switched," Stotts said. "Whether it was them or the crowd, the game turned on us."

Ginobili almost single-handedly fueled the comeback, scoring 18 straight points to end the quarter.

"Vintage Ginobili," Stotts said. "He's making 3's, going to the basket, getting fouled, scoring off pick-and-rolls. He's capable of having those (spurts)."

But the Blazers got it done in the clutch, especially Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, who combined for 17 fourth-quarter points.

After going for a pedestrian six points and five rebounds in the first half, Aldridge went for 20 points and eight boards over the final two quarters. With boyhood idol Tim Duncan switching off to guard him in the fourth quarter, Aldridge scored three straight baskets on a pair of jumpers and a move to the hoop that he finished with the left hand.

Then there was Matthews, who had a quiet first half, too, with eight points. He was nails at crunch time, knocking down three straight 3-pointers in a 2:21 stretch, the last one giving Portland a 105-96 advantage with 1:25 to play.

"What do they say in football -- pitch and catch?" asked Matthews, who scored 24 points and knocked down 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. "I like high-pressure situations. My teammates were finding me. They did the hard job. All I had to do was knock the shot down."

Ginobili finished with 29 points off the bench to lead five Spurs in double figures. But the home team didn't have enough to get past a determined group of visitors.

"Every time we made a run or played good defense, (the Blazers) would get a 3 or an isolation for Aldridge and a bucket," Ginobili said. "They were ready down the stretch."

As impressive as anything were the little plays that turned big.

With Portland clinging to a 92-91 lead and the clock winding under four minutes, Lillard launched a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim. Nicolas Batum skied him for the long rebound and, in one motion, one-handed a no-look pass to Matthews spotted up behind the 3-point line in the far corner. Swish!

" 'Dame' set up the play," said Batum, who had his usual fill-the-stat-sheet performance with nine points, nine rebounds and seven assists. "When I got the rebound, he was behind the (3-point) line yelling, 'Nic!' So all the (defenders') eyes went to Dame. I sensed Wes was open."

Stotts smiled when reminded of the moment.

"I like team play," he said. "I like unselfish play. I like effort plays. You saw that a lot tonight.

"We need to rely on each other. Those type of plays, as much as they lift us up, they're very deflating for the other team."

"That's who we are," Aldridge added. "We make the extra pass. We make the extra extra pass. They doubled me late to take me out, and it was like second nature (to find the open teammate). Makes us really hard to guard."

The Blazers hung tough when the Spurs rallied to take an 83-79 lead early in the fourth quarter.

"The crowd got back to it, but we kept our poise," Batum said. "That's how we've improved from last year. Tonight, we calmed down when things got hectic."

The unsung hero might have been center Robin Lopez, whose statistical line -- eight points, three rebounds in 34 minutes -- doesn't reflect his contributions at the defensive end. Lopez guarded Duncan through most of his 34 minutes, holding the perennial All-Star to 13 points and seven rebounds on 6-for-16 shooting.

"We know he's going to get his," Lopez said. "I just did what I could do to pester him. Maybe he had an off night, maybe I had a bit of an effect. I know I had a lot of teammates backing me up."

The Blazers were trying to not make too much of one victory, even if it came against the defending Western Conference champions in their own building. But it was hard to conceal the fact that they were tickled to pull this one out as they venture to Dallas Saturday, then Houston Monday and Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

"If we start this road trip with a loss, then we have to play back-to-back in Dallas. … That could have been tough," Batum said. "To win this game against the No. 1 team in the West -- the best team in the league, maybe -- that's big. Especially the way we played."

Added Lillard, who collected 21 points, eight assists and five rebounds despite making only 6 of 16 shots from the field: "With the rest of the trip we have in front of us, for us to come in against probably the toughest of them all and get a win is great momentum for us going forward."

Ginobili was complimentary in his assessment of the Blazers.

"They're good," he said. "They have a lot of scorers. They have great shooters. They pass well, too. They have (Aldridge), who can shoot over anybody and, against us, it looks like they all go in. Even with that, we missed a couple of opportunities. Can't let that happen when you play great teams."

Interesting to hear opponents refer to Portland as a "great team."

A few months ago, few of us would have believed it. Now, the Blazers are getting there.

But Friday's win wasn't a statement about what can happen the rest of the season, Lillard said.

"It's not about later," he said. "It's about wanting to be consistent. We want to keep getting the job done.

"We knew this was going to be a tough trip. We came here ready to win a game, and we did that."

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