BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Lillard heats up in second half as Portland rallies for important win in NBA Western Conference race

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers leave the floor at Moda Center a winner Thursday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Not many players can have the kind of shooting start Damian Lillard did Thursday night at Moda Center, and still have the fans chanting "MVP!" at game's end.

For more than a half, Lillard couldn't hit a piece of toast with a butter knife. He missed his first nine shots from the field — six of them from 3-point range — and finished 2 for 12 in the first half.

Then Portland's meal ticket came on with a flourish, scoring 23 of his 35 points over the final 17 minutes in the Blazers' come-from-behind, 108-99 victory over Minnesota.

"I was just missing," Lillard said. "I was missing a lot of shots short. They kept hitting the front of the rim. When it was leaving my hands, it felt good. I just knew I had to shoot the ball a little bit higher.

"I wasn't worried about it, honestly. I knew I was going to keep applying pressure through the course of the game, and eventually it was going to fall."

Lillard made 7 of 10 shots from the field in the second half, including 4 of 6 3's, and finished 13 for 16 from the foul line. That helped rescue the Blazers (36-26), who trailed by 10 points with a minute to go in the third quarter.

"I'm really proud of our team tonight," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We struggled offensively most of the night, but just kept hanging around, still competed defensively and put ourselves in position to win a game once we started making some shots."

It was a season-high fifth straight victory overall and the 12th in 13 home games for the Blazers, who closed the gap to a half-game behind Minnesota (38-26) in the phone booth-tight NBA Western Conference playoff race. The Timberwolves remain in third place, with Portland and San Antonio (36-26) tied for fourth. New Orleans (35-26) and Oklahoma City (36-27) loom a half-game back in sixth and seventh.

"This game was huge because of where (the Wolves) are and where we are," Lillard said. "The race is so tight, every game matters. If you can knock a team off that is right there where you are, it's even better."

Lillard had plenty of company in the shooting woes department. The Blazers missed their first 12 3-point attempts and finished 9 for 30. They shot .327 in the first half and .391 for the game. CJ McCollum struggled with his shot, too, going 7 for 18 from the field en route to a 19-point showing.

"The first 2 1/2 quarters, we couldn't buy a basket," Lillard said. "We missed a lot of shots. But we stayed with it, we kept grinding defensively, and when the shots started to fall, we were able to pull another one out. It showed growth in shooting under 40 percent and still being able to beat a really good team."

Well, the Wolves were a good team when Jimmy Butler was leading the way. With the All-Star guard sidelined with a knee injury for at least the rest of the regular season, they're not as good at either end of the court. With starting power forward Taj Gibson missing in the fourth quarter Thursday with a right hip bruise, the Wolves were undermanned and outscored 33-21 over the final 12 minutes.

Even so, without Lillard, the Blazers would have had very little chance of getting it done.

"We did a good job of making it hard on him all night," said Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, who burned the Blazers for 34 points and 17 rebounds. "Jeff (Teague) was great on him. But he started making some long 3's and some superstar shots."

Did Stotts feel that Lillard — who averaged 31.4 points in the month of February — would eventually get it going?

"I usually feel that way," the sixth-year Portland mentor said. "Both he and CJ. When those guys are open, you think it's going to go in, no matter what they did before. The good thing is, they think that, too."

Stotts and Lillard agreed on one thing.

"We may not have won this game earlier in the season," Stotts said. "We had the belief that it was going to break at some point."

"Over the course of a season, some teams get better; some teams don't," Lillard said. "Some teams figure it out; some teams don't. Historically, we've been a team that as the season goes on, we have ups and downs, but toward the end we start playing better.

"We're at a point where things that would have happened earlier on in the season aren't happening now. That's the sign of a team that's maturing, that it's growing and getting better."

NOTES: Portland's next action is a Saturday night date with OKC at Moda Center. ... The Blazers' starting small forward, Moe Harkless, left after playing eight minutes in the first quarter with a sore right knee (patella tendon strain) and did not return. Harkless said afterward an MRI was unnecessary and that he didn't believe the injury was serious. Does he expect to be ready for the game against the Thunder? "Absolutely." ... Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier both made important contributions off the Portland bench. Davis collected 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting with 11 rebounds and two blocked shots in 27 minutes, going most of the fourth quarter at center in place of Jusuf Nurkic. "I was going to go back with Nurk," Stotts said, "but Ed was too effective." Said Lillard: "I never take what Ed does for granted. There are so many things that he does that give us extra possessions offensively, cover up for our mistakes defensively, brings that energy. That's what you need from guys coming off the bench. He's been great at that all season long." ... Nurkic collected 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting and had six rebounds in 19 minutes. ... Napier made only 4 of 11 shots but scored 16 points and had three boards, two assists and two steals in 27 minutes. ... The Blazers and Wolves tied the season series at 2-2. ... This is the first time Portland has been 10 games over .500 since finishing the 2014-15 season at 51-31.

Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau was in the stands at Moda Center to watch the Blazers beat Sacramento on Tuesday night. The Timberwolves had played in Sacramento on Monday, then flew to Portland. "It happens once or twice a year, where you get to a city early," Thibodeau said. "It's enjoyable to more or less go to the game and watch. We had a scout here. Some of the guys on the staff wanted to get out and have an opportunity to watch them." ... Butler was second in the NBA in minutes played (37.1 per game) when he went down with a knee injury last week. Does Thibodeau worry that the injury could have been caused by too much playing time? "His minutes were consistent with what he normally plays," the Minnesota coach said. "Wing players will play anywhere from 35 to 37. He has always handled that. Injuries are part of the game."

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