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Damian Lillard's leadership lifts Portland higher in NBA Western Conference standings

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Damian Lillard (right) remains the biggest positive force, with his play and captain leadership, as the Trail Blazers climb in the NBA Western Conference standings.PHOENIX — There are several reasons why the Trail Blazers stand a reasonable chance of finishing third in the NBA Western Conference playoff race, but none more than the man who wears No. 0 — er, the letter "O" — on his jersey.

Lillard scored 40 points — 28 in the second half, 19 in the fourth quarter — along with the game-winner with .9 of a second left in Portland's 106-104 win over Phoenix Saturday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Like his teammates, the All-Star point guard suffered through a poor shooting game, making 1 of his first 9 shots from 3-point range. But when it became crunch time — Lillard Time, if you will — the Blazers' meal ticket rose to the occasion and played Goliath, carrying the local quintet to victory.

Count the big plays. A spectacular one-handed rebound dunk with Phoenix on its way to a 15-point fourth-quarter lead. Two treys in the final four minutes, the latter evening the count at 100-100 with 1:10 to play. Moments before, a tip-in — from a 6-3 perimeter player, mind you — and a three-point play to tie the score at 97-97.

And then the right-handed driving layup that he corkscrewed in from the left side to ring the victory bell and send the lowly Suns to their ninth straight loss.

"That's who he is," coach Terry Stotts said afterward. "We expect (such heroics), but we don't take it for granted. He has done some amazing things in his six years."

But Lillard makes his most important contribution as team captain. He has the instincts to say the right thing and offer praise to teammates that, he hopes, will pay dividends down the road.

After Saturday's come-from-behind win, Lillard pointed to the defensive contributions of Portland's starting front line — forwards Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq "Chief" Aminu and center Jusuf Nurkic — as integral to the triumph.

"Moe and 'Chief' and Nurk's activity on the defensive end changed the game for us," Lillard said. "The deflections, their activity guarding guys and making guys work, blocking shots and rebounding — that shows the will, the desire to win.

"It created opportunities for us to attack and get downhill on the offensive end. And I was able to get it going."

Nurkic had a nice block and Harkless and Aminu played strong D to help create five Phoenix turnovers in the fourth quarter. Indeed, their work at the defensive end will be critical for Portland's chances to improve its standing in the playoff picture. But really, this one was all about Lillard on a rescue mission after the Blazers trailed 93-78 with 7:27 left.

"It's an incredible win," Stotts said. "It was looking pretty bleak there in the fourth quarter. I was proud how our guys kept competing and never gave up.

"Damian showed his leadership, showed his talent, did a lot of good things in the fourth quarter that got us over the hump. I always appreciate his desire and his will."

That was critical on a night when Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum were 1 for 13 from the 3-point line through 3 1/2 quarters. And when Portland finished 6 for 30 from beyond the stripe. And the team's third guard, Shabazz Napier, went zippo on 10 shots from the field, going 0 for 7 on 3-point tries. And the Blazers shot .394 from the field.

"We overcame a horrendous shooting game to win," Stotts said.

Nurkic wasn't horrendous, contributing 14 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes. But he made only 7 of 16 shots from the field and again had trouble finishing at the rim. His ability to do that "has been sporadic" all season, Stotts said.

The one thing Nurkic has done consistently is be inconsistent. The 7-foot Bosnian's performance the rest of the way will have a big say in whether the Blazers are pretenders or contenders in the postseason.

"We need him to rebound, play defense, finish around the basket," Stotts said. "He has had an up and down season. The (All-Star Game) break was good for him. He knows how important he is to our team and how much better we are when he's doing the things he can do for us."

When Nurkic arrived from Denver at the trade deadline last season, his passing skills were immediately obvious.

"His first game with us, the thing that stood out was his passing," Stotts said. "For whatever reason, it hasn't been the same this year. Some of it is decision-making; some of it could be our sets.

"On the whole, our team's passing has been down this season. But when you have a big man who can open up the court with his passing, that helps your offense."

Even without much offense until a 35-point fourth quarter, Portland survived against the Suns. It was the fifth victory in six games for the Blazers (34-26), on the second of back-to-back games after a win at Utah in which they ended an 11-game Jazz win streak. But it was much more difficult than it should have been against a Phoenix team that had yielded 79 points in the first half in a home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers the night before.

"We had a great win (Friday) night, and it was set up for us to come in here and lay an egg," Lillard said. "We didn't play great, but you just have to get it done."

The Blazers got it done, but only because Lillard tapped his wrist with the game on the line.

"I don't think we took this game lightly," Stotts said. "It didn't play out as a trap game, because I thought we tried. We just didn't play well. Sometimes those trap games are more of a mental thing. But it will serve as a reminder.

"It's nice to have a teaching moment after a win instead of a loss. There aren't going to be any easy ones the rest of the way."

Next up is a Tuesday home date with Sacramento, which one would think qualifies as an easy one. The Kings (18-41) had lost three in a row and seven of nine going into Monday's home game against Minnesota. The Kings are headed for the draft lottery, and their name will like be tossed around in the same sentence as the "T" word (tank) over the next five weeks.

But Lillard said the Phoenix game is proof the Blazers can't take any opponent for granted.

"We aren't a team that can come in and say, 'Oh, we're playing the Suns,' or look down on any opponent," Lillard said. "There's a certain level we have to play at, certain things we have to be focused on, so we can win games."

After Saturday's play, the Blazers were in fifth place in the West, a game and a half back of No. 3 Minnesota and a game behind No. 4 San Antonio, a team reeling without its best player, the injured Kawhi Leonard. On the other hand, Portland is only two games ahead of the No. 9 Clippers and three in front of No. 10 Utah.

"This is a race to the finish," Lillard proclaimed, and he is right.

Stotts has been coaching in the NBA for 25 years, "and I've never seen this many teams this close to each other," he said.

The Blazers have the wherewithal to get to No. 3 or 4 in the conference, which would mean homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They can't let games like Saturday's slip away.

"We lost a few of these type of games the first half of the season, and we learned from it," reserve guard Pat Connaughton said. "We're not necessarily a young team, but we're on the young side. We don't have too many 30-year-old dudes. Experience in these situations is important.

"This one will really help us. When you come back from 15 down, that will make you say, 'Hey, we got a second life. We weren't supposed to win this one when you're down that much.' We have to take every game as seriously as we did the Golden State one (a 123-117 win on Feb. 14)."

The standings, Connaughton said, "are something we pay attention to, but what we can control is taking each game as it comes. That's something we've preached since we got back from the All-Star break. Hopefully, that will carry us through the next 22 games."

That, and a point guard who loves the ball in his possession with the game on the line, with the talent and the chutzpah to do something with it.

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@kerryeggers

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