Blazers at the All-Star break: Lillard and Co. in good spot for NBA playoff push
The Trail Blazers may not gain homecourt advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs. But they showed the route to get there Wednesday night at Moda Center.
The Blazers got in the first licks on the Golden State Warriors and never backed down in a 123-117 victory over the defending NBA champions.
"A great way to go into the (All-Star) break," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "A really good win for us, one we definitely needed."
I'm going one step further. I'm calling it Portland's best win of the year, and the Man of the Hour is in agreement.
"It might be our best win as far as a quality opponent, how we started the game, how we weathered the storm, how focused we were defensively," said Damian Lillard, whose 44 points and eight assists were the biggest reason why the Blazers (32-26) held off the NBA's best team at every turn. "We scored points like we needed to, and we had a presence on the defensive end.
"The crowd was excited. There was a lot of energy in the building. Going into the (All-Star) break, how tight the standings are in the West, it was probably our best performance."
Portland, which has won 10 of its last 11 home contests, never trailed after the game's opening minutes. The Blazers opened a 38-18 lead late in the first quarter and carried 63-51 advantage into halftime.
The Warriors cut the difference to 74-73 on back-to-back four-point plays by Kevin Durant — has that ever happened before? — early in the third quarter. The Blazers, with Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the way, held them off.
In the fourth quarter, the Warriors scored eight straight points to tie it to 99-99. The Blazers answered with a 10-2 run to go ahead 109-101 with 5:03 to play.
Durant — who bombed in 50 points in a virtuoso performance — sank consecutive 3's and scored 10 straight points to close the gap to 117-115 with 1:29 remaining.
Portland closed out the triumph with six straight free throws over the final 18.9 seconds — two by Evan Turner, two by Al-Farouq Aminu and two by Lillard.
Stotts called it a "signature win for us this year so far," and it was all of that. McCollum scored 29 points as he and Lillard outscored Golden State's sterling backcourt pair, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, by an almost shocking 73-34 margin.
Lillard scored 18 points in the first quarter, getting the drop on Curry, who never found a rhythm. Curry finished with 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting — 3 for 10 from 3-point territory — to go with six assists, three steals and seven turnovers. Lillard was 14 for 25 from the field and 12 for 12 from the free-throw line.
Over the last three games, Lillard has scored 133 points — 50 against Sacramento, 39 against Utah and now 44 against Golden State. It's the highest-scoring three-game span in franchise history, bettering Brandon Roy's 119 points in 2008. As he toed the line near the end of Wednesday's win, Moda Center denizens changed, "M-V-P!" The past week, they're not far wrong.
"He's a pretty determined player," Stotts said. "He's in a really good rhythm right now."
Lillard — bound for Sunday's All-Star Game in Los Angeles — attributes it to "urgency and focus."
"It's a tight (playoff) race," he said. "There are a lot of teams in the mix. You get to the point in the season where guys are fatigued physically and mentally.
"To be a leader of a team, you have to be willing to lead the charge. And not just by saying it, but through your actions. I feel like that's where I am. The strongest guys are going to survive."
Lillard said he has been more in attack mode of late.
"I'm asserting myself, sometimes by playmaking and helping other guys getting it going," he said. "Tonight, we had to score points. I knew if we were going to have a chance to score the kind of points we needed, I had to be going. I came out from the start aggressive. CJ did, too. That's the kind of effort we needed."
Every time Golden State surged, the Blazers responded.
"It seemed like every time we were closing the (deficit), they hit a big shot," Durant said. "They've been hot at home this month, and it showed tonight."
The Warriors (44-14) have fallen behind often in recent games, much the consternation of coach Steve Kerr.
"The game has to matter from the beginning," Kerr said. "We were careless at both ends. Bad shot selection, careless with the ball, careless defensively, not getting up on shooters.
"I give (the Blazers) credit. They came out and were hot from the start, but we have to be ready to play, and we weren't. The last three quarters, we fought like crazy. But it's hard to dig yourself a 20-point hole on the road against a great offensive team and then you decide, 'OK, we're going to play now.'"
If the Blazers can consistently play the way they did against the Warriors, they stand a good chance of finishing the regular season in third or fourth place in the NBA Western Conference.
Golden State fell a half-game behind Houston (44-13) atop the conference. Four and a half games separate the next eight teams, starting with San Antonio (35-24), Minnesota (35-25) and Oklahoma City (33-26). Portland is sixth, followed by Denver (31-26) and New Orleans (31-26), the L.A. Clippers (30-26) and Utah (30-28).
Had the Blazers lost Wednesday night, they'd have slipped into a virtual tie for No. 8 with the Clippers. That's how precarious their situation is.
But Lillard likes what he is seeing from his teammates.
"Right now, our team is showing we're there mentally," he said. "Not just me, but every guy. Everybody is coming with that energy. For us to be one of those kind of teams we want to be, we have to have that. Each season, there are a few teams that fall by the wayside. We have to make sure we're not one of them.
"In the back of our minds, we know we're usually a better team in the second half of the season. But we have to understand how close a race it is. We have to be sharp all the way to the finish."
McCollum said he is pleased with Portland's position at the break.
"'Dame' and I set some goals for where wanted to be at (before the season), and I think we hit them," he said. "I'm looking forward to building on that post-All-Star break and making a push for the playoffs.
"It's a long season. There are going to be good wins and bad losses. We just have to try to be as consistent as possible. But considering how we've played this year, I think we're in a good spot."
Portland's remaining schedule is difficult, especially through March, when the Blazers face Golden State, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Oklahoma City (twice), the Clippers (twice), Detroit and New Orleans. Not a lot of gimmes there.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Stotts said. "It's not about where we are; it's about where we're headed."
But the blueprint was laid Wednesday night. Now the Blazers have to follow it.
NOTES: Portland's next action is Feb. 23 at Utah. ... The Blazers snapped a seven-game losing streak to Golden State. ... Lillard has made 46 straight free throws, eight shy of the longest streak of his career (54 in March 2016). ... Lillard goes into the All-Star Game averaging 26.1 points, ranking sixth in the NBA behind only Houston's James Harden, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, New Orleans' Anthony Davis, Curry and Cleveland's LeBron James. ... Portland center Jusuf Nurkic collected 17 points and 13 rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu quietly had nine points and 11 boards for the Blazers. ... Durant was 17 for 27 from the field, 6 for 14 from 3-point range and 10 for 10 at the line. He also had seven rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes. ... Draymond Green had 16 points, 12 boards and seven assists for the Warriors. ... Curry, Green, Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala all took turns trying to slow down Lillard, to no avail. ... Kerr on former Blazers center Bill Walton, who served as analyst for ESPN's TV coverage of the game: "He's obviously a bit nutty, in a good way."