A February not to be forgotten, thanks to Damian Lillard
It's been quite a month of February for Damian Lillard.
Good enough that he stands a great chance to be named NBA Western Conference Player of the Month.
It may be, in fact, the best month of his six-year career with the Trail Blazers.
Lillard capped the month by going for 26 points and 12 assists in Portland's 116-99 romp past Sacramento on Tuesday night at Moda Center.
In 10 games in February, the Blazers' point guard and team captain averaged 31.4 points, topping the franchise record of 30.4 held by Geoff Petrie in 1971. Over the last six games, he has averaged 37.2.
Lillard had a streak of 54 straight made free throws from Feb. 4-23. And on Feb. 18, he scored 21 points in 21 minutes in his third appearance in the NBA All-Star Game.
The Oakland, California, native has scored 10,302 career points and is closing fast on Cliff Robinson (10,405) to move into fourth place on the franchise list behind Clyde Drexler, LaMarcus Aldridge and Terry Porter.
"I want to be the best Trail Blazer ever," Lillard told a group of reporters after the Blazers (35-26) disposed of the woeful Kings for their fourth straight win. "I can't say things like that without leading the team to a successful season, winning games, and having a huge impact on that happening. That goes along with it. My production and my leadership has to say that."
It has spoken volumes of late.
"It doesn't surprise me," reserve forward Ed Davis said. "He's a hell of a player. He's gotten better every year. Now he's to the point where he just controls a game. He dictates how fast the game is going to go. He's taken it to another level. He puts so much pressure on the defense, they're off-balance from the get-go."
The last time out against Sacramento on Feb. 9, Lillard had dropped a 50-spot on the Kings in three quarters of action.
This time, he played the fourth quarter as the visitors stayed just close enough to ward off garbage time.
Lillard scored 15 points in the first quarter and had 19 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first half.
"I didn't know if he was going to go for another 50 or not the way he started the game," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He shot the ball really well. He managed the game well. He was passing the ball, got his teammates involved. He showed good leadership on the court.
"I don't know if there's more to say about the way he has been playing. He is very focused right now. His leadership permeates the team. He has a way of elevating not only his game, but his teammates' game."
But right now, it's more about the team race for Portland, which is in position to climb as high as third in the Western Conference playoff race, with six weeks left in the regular season.
The Blazers are fifth, a game and a half behind No. 3 Minnesota (38-26) and one game back of No. 4 San Antonio (36-25). Portland is a half-game in front of New Orleans (34-26) and Oklahoma City (35-27), with the Los Angeles Clippers (32-27), Denver (33-28) and Utah (31-30) nipping on everyone's heels.
"It's a dogfight," Lillard said. "Every game counts. One loss could move you three spots, up or down.
"We're in a good space, both mentally and in the standings. As long as we continue to focus on us, we control whatever we want to be at the end."
The schedule through March is daunting. Only three of 15 games will be against teams out of the playoff race, beginning with Thursday night's Moda showdown with Minnesota.
Before the Sacramento game, Stotts talked about what he has said is the tightest playoff race from Nos. 3 to 10 he has seen in 25 years coaching in the NBA.
"There are going to be a lot of games played amongst those eight teams," he said. "That will create some separation. It may not wind up as an eight-team race, but there are going to be some interesting races no matter what happens.
"We have nine games against teams in that group (the rest of the regular season). The team that comes out with the most wins in those games is going to be in a better position. It's going to be exciting. You're going to have a lot of significant games through the remainder of the season."
Minnesota versus Portland, Stotts said after beating the Kings, "is one of those games."
"It's an important game for both teams," the sixth-year Blazers mentor said. "It's a swing game. (The Timberwolves) lead the season series 2-1. It could have a lot of (playoff) implications."
Through the rest of March, the Blazers play Oklahoma City twice, the Clippers twice, Golden State, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Detroit and New Orleans.
"That's what we want," Davis said. "We're playing good basketball right now. You want to play the better teams, especially out West. Those games count as double. We're all fighting for the same spots.
"We're ready for the challenge. It's a good test for us."
Or, as reserve forward Evan Turner put it, "It's time to weed out the teams that aren't going to be in (the playoffs)."
"We're all clicking," Turner said of the Blazers. "We comprehend what's at stake. It's about getting ourselves in rhythm for what we want to do in the postseason."
Lillard likes what he's seeing from the Blazers, who have won 12 of their last 17 games and 11 of the last 12 at home.
"It's the best place we've been in years," he said. "My thing is to continue to be that, to push in the right direction. We can't be satisfied with where we are, with what we've been doing. It's got to be on to the next thing, to try to take it up to the next level."
NOTES — Minnesota will be without its best player, shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee last week. ... Portland has beaten Sacramento 10 straight times at Moda Center. ... After going 2 for 20 in the previous two games, including 0 for 10 in Saturday's win at Phoenix, backup point guard Shabazz Napier scored 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting — 4 for 5 from 3-point range — against the Kings. "For everybody who wanted him to stop shooting, that was for them," Stotts said. ... Jusuf Nurkic also had an effective offensive game, with 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting and nine boards in 25 minutes. ... Davis came off the bench for nine points and 12 rebounds in 20 minutes. ... CJ McCollum, who started 1 for 11 from the field, finished 5 for 18 and had 11 points in 34 minutes. ... The Blazers scored a season-high 20 fast-break points.