Lillard & Co. rev it up
That sound you hear at Moda Center may be the Trail Blazers' motor, getting revved up for a stretch drive.
With Damian Lillard driving the buggy and the offense flowing like a Lamborghini, Portland put away Minnesota 123-114 Wednesday night in a game that wasn't as close as the final tally indicates.
One day after making his third NBA All-Star Game and two days after being named the Western Conference Player of the Week, Lillard bombed in 6 of 11 3-pointers on his way to a 31-point blitzkrieg.
Backcourt mate CJ McCollum was big, too, with 28 points, and the supporting cast played major roles as the Blazers (26-22), who shot a season's-best .549 from the field, won for the fourth time in five games.
Since New Year's Day, when they got past Chicago 124-120 in double overtime, the Blazers have been an offensive juggernaut, scoring at least 110 points in 11 of 13 games and averaging 112.3 points per contest.
"Weeks ago, I said we were starting to play the kind of basketball we need to play," Lillard said. "The thing that's giving us a chance is we're setting screens and focusing and executing.
"You have to be able to make reads. Your mind has to be into it to make this offense work. It's a great offense, and I think guys are getting comfortable. We're trusting each other. We're making the game easier for each other. It's flowing really well right now."
Rembrandt couldn't have painted a prettier third quarter for the Blazers, who outscored Minnesota 43-30 over the 12 minutes, sinking 14 of 21 shots from the field, 7 of 9 from 3-point range and 8 of 10 from the free-throw line. It was their highest-scoring quarter of the season.
"These last two years, that's probably our best quarter," Lillard said. "If we could watch that whole quarter during a training camp, (coaches) would say, 'This is how we want to play. This is how the ball needs to move. This is how we need to screen. This is the pace we need to have.' It was a showcase, a great display of Blazer basketball."
Portland won the game at the 3-point line, going 17 for 31 (.548) to Minnesota's 6 for 16 (.375). That's a 33-point bulge from beyond the arc, one few teams can overcome.
The Timberwolves (31-19) were going without their best player, All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who sat out his third straight game with a sore knee. The Wolves could have used Butler in trying to slow down McCollum, who was an able partner in crime with Lillard.
"They both had big nights," Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. "You have to stay disciplined (defending them). They're capable of making tough shots. You have to keep challenging, and you can't give them space. In the third quarter, we gave them a cushion, and that's all they needed."
Minnesota led through most of the first half, but Portland came back to tie the score at 54-54 at intermission. The Blazers broke away in the third quarter and ramped it up in the fourth, mounting a 123-104 lead before coach Terry Stotts called off the horses with 2:45 to play. The Wolves outscored the Portland reserves 10-0 the rest of the way to make the score more respectable.
"You have to turn the faucet off, and we weren't able to," said Minnesota's All-Star center, Karl-Anthony Towns, who had a quiet 16 points and nine rebounds. "We just didn't play defense tonight."
Portland's role players did their jobs, and then some. Power forward Al-Farouq Aminu scored 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting — 3 for 4 from 3-point range — and had seven rebounds and two steals in 26 minutes, spending much of his time defending Towns.
"'Chief' was taking advantage of the fact that they collapsed in the paint, and he was spotting up," Stotts said. "And he continues to take the challenge of guarding premier post players."
Shooting guard Pat Connaughton scored 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting — two 3-pointers and three dunks off lobs.
"We all know he can jump," Lillard said. "We see him do it all the time. I always wonder what the other team is thinking. Like, 'This white dude is up here?' I'm sure on the scouting report, he's a shooter, and a right-hand driver. He's one of our most explosive players. It's impressive. It's fun to watch."
Then there was Ed Davis, who made all three of his field-goal attempts, collected 11 points and 10 rebounds and did all the little things that help add up to victory.
"Everybody knows my role — to do the dirty work," the 6-9 power forward said. "Try to give us extra possessions, bring some fire off the bench. Just trying to do what I can to help this team win."
Portland has won seven in a row at home, but the road beckons. Five of the next six games are away from the friendly confines of Moda Center, beginning Friday night at Dallas. Are the Blazers ready for a push?
"I think so," McCollum said. "Offensively, we've played extremely well. We've given up a lot of points, but our tempo has been tough to guard, the way we're pushing the ball, moving it, handling the pick-and-rolls. I like the way we're playing."
NOTES: Lillard was asked if he drew extra inspiration from Russell Westbrook's comment about players are "talking about getting snubbed until they get in" the All-Star Game. "I really don't care what he says," Lilard said. "The two years I didn't make it, I said every guy who did make it was deserving. I said I just felt I should have been there. But that was my way of handling it. I know he has no loyalty toward me. He owes me nothing. The bottom line is, when we play against each other, he knows who is who. He knows I earned it, I deserved to be there, and so does he." ... Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 24 points, and ex-Blazers guard Jamal Crawford, 37, came off the bench for 19 points in 20 minutes. "They're a good team," Crawford said of the Blazers. "They've had some success this year. They know who they are. They play their roles well. It starts with the two guards, and they fill around that with role players like Ed Davis, Shabazz (Napier), Pat Connaughton ... they have a lot of guys stepping up." ... Thibodeau was an assistant coach with Team USA, so he has an appreciation for Lillard and McCollum, who both were involved in tryout camps. "That backcourt is incredible," Thibodeau said. "I had a chance to spend time around them. They're high-character guys. They work at it. Every year, they come back and they're better. Those two guys are deserving (of All-Star recognition)."
Thibodeau would like to see All-Star Game rosters expanded from 12 to 15 players. "There are a lot of guys deserving, particularly in the West," he said. "It's hard to get minutes for everyone (in the game), but it's a game that's for the fans." ... Thibodeau, on how he chooses to vote for players: "Usually when it's coming down to the end, you're trying to find ways to separate people. You look at how they impact winning and things like that. That is important. The winning part is the most important stat there is. Teams that win big have multiple all-stars. Everyone's value goes up in that situation." ... Portland came into the game ranked among the top 10 in the NBA in 3-point percentage (fourth, .376), free-throw percentage (fifth, .797) blocked shots (fifth, 5.21), opponents' field-goal percentage (fifth, .449) and opponents' scoring (sixth, 103.1). The Blazers ranked low in fast-break points (30th, 6.5) and opponents' turnovers (28th, 13.1). ... Minnesota ranked among the top 10 in field-goal percentage (fifth, .476), scoring (sixth, 108.9) and free-throw percentage (eighth, .793).