Blazers' win streak at four
Four-game win streaks aren't easy to come by in the NBA, even with all the games at home and the final three of them against some of the league's weak sisters.
So the Trail Blazers are rightly pleased with the skein that reached a season high after they ran roughshod over Charlotte 127-96 Friday night at Moda Center.
After losing to Oklahoma City, Portland (26-17) ran off victories over Houston, New York, Chicago and Charlotte in succession to complete a five-game homestand.
Now the going gets tougher.
The Blazers go on a two-game road trip, starting against Western Conference leader Denver (28-12) on Sunday and finishing against Sacramento (21-21). Over the next 14 games leading into the All-Star break, Portland plays 12 opponents in strong playoff contention. Only Cleveland and Atlanta, both at home, seem like sure wins.
Portland and Denver have played once this season, the Nuggets winning 113-112 at Moda Center on Nov. 30 when CJ McCollum missed an open jump shot just before time expired.
"They came here and got one," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. "We had a shot at the end of the game to beat them, and we didn't feel like we played that well.
"We just have to take this brand of basketball onto their court and get us another win."
The brand of ball the Blazers displayed against the Hornets was top-drawer. Portland's first-half performance was suitable for framing. The Blazers matched their season high in first-half scoring in running up a 70-49 lead. They shot .547 from the field, had 19 fast-break points, blocked 10 shots and held the Hornets to .360 shooting. And the Blazers had only one turnover — in the half's final minute.
"We were just sharp," Lillard said. "We made it hard for them. We defended well. We played well on the offensive end, too."
Portland finished the game shooting .559, making 15 of 40 from 3-point range (.375). The Blazers had season highs in assists (31), field goals (52), blocked shots (16) and fast-break points (28). Portland came into the game ranked 23rd in the NBA in the latter category at 10.7 per game.
"I finally took the reins off them and said, 'Go ahead, let it go,'" coach Terry Stotts quipped.
"We played a really good game," Stotts said. "We were good at both ends in the first half, moving the ball, making plays for each other, and we had 19 deflections or blocks.
"I liked the demeanor of our team the entire game at both ends of the floor. We were really locked in and played the right way."
McCollum scored 16 of his 30 points in the first quarter, knocking down 7 of 11 shots from the field. He finished 12 for 20, making 5 of 11 attempts from 3-point range, and also had six rebounds in only 29 minutes.
Lillard scored 20 points, but it was his play at the defensive end on Charlotte's Kemba Walker — who came in averaging 25.1 points — that was integral to the rout. Walker scored 18 points as Lillard harassed him into a 5-for-19 shooting performance and even had a career-high four blocked shots.
"Kemba is what makes their team go," Lillard said. "I knew it was going to be a defensive challenge. I tried to set the tone. He likes to raise up off those pick-and-rolls and pull-up 3's, get the big off-balance and raise up for a jumper. I just kept fighting over the top (of the screen) and tried to get a good contest.
"I could tell he didn't see me on a few of them, so I just went ahead and blocked them."
Then there was Jusuf Nurkic, whose scoring wasn't needed (he had 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting) as much as his rebounding (11), passing (eight assists) and his defense (six blocks).
"The impact he made defensively was the biggest thing," Stotts said.
Stotts kept Nurkic in at the start of the fourth quarter to let him try for his first career triple-double but removed him for good with 10:17 remaining.
"I told him I'd give him two minutes," Stotts said. "It's something you have to do, but I didn't necessarily like doing it. It took away from the rhythm of the game."
Said Nurkic: "I had a shot, but if it doesn't happen right away, I'm not going to chase it."
Charlotte (19-22) put up little resistance while losing its seventh game in the last 10 outings. First-year coach James Borrego didn't mince words while assessing his players' performance afterward.
"Lack of effort, lack of competitive spirit, too soft on the ball, too soft inside — just a lack of spirit tonight," Borrego said.
Other than that, the Hornets — who lost 122-84 in a home game against Dallas on Jan. 2 — were just fine.
Now the Blazers — who trail the Nuggets by 3 1/2 games — head to Denver for the biggest game of the season thus far.
"Each game is important based on how close the standings are, but this one is in particular," McCollum said. "(The Nuggets) are a good team. They're playing extremely well. They have some guys hurt, but they have guys stepping up and playing well."
NOTES — Former Blazer Nicolas Batum had eight points and five rebounds in 24 minutes. Batum, 30, is shooting well — .456 from the field, .396 from 3-point range, .860 from the free-throw line — but is averaging 8.8 points, on pace for a season low since his rookie year. "The ball is not in his hands as much as he's had it in the past," Borrego said before the game. "We're trying to move the ball around a little bit more, play through some other pieces, but he's one of the pieces. I've been proud of how he's handled it, how he's competed, especially on the defensive end. He gets the assignment a lot of nights on the best perimeter player. He's doing what we're asking him to do." Borrego must have felt differently Friday night, however, playing Batum only six minutes in the second half. Asked what he wants from Batum going forward, Borrego said, "I want to see him be aggressive. I want to see him continue to grow, compete every night — that's what I want to see."
Batum's appraisal of the Blazers: "They're a good offensive team. They move the ball well; they move without the ball well. CJ and 'Dame' got it going early tonight. We didn't find a way to stop them. They're well-coached. I know their system pretty well. Terry did a good job with this team. Nurkic is doing a good job. When you've got a big guy who can score inside and be a presence in the paint, that's huge. When you have one guy inside and two guys on the perimeter, you have a good team." ... Borrego, on Nurkic: "He's playing as well as any center in the league. He's really efficient down there when he catches it." ... In his first year with the Hornets after 16 years with the Spurs, Tony Parker came off the bench for three points and three assists in 12 minutes. For the previous three seasons, Borrego was an assistant coach in San Antonio. He was part of what enticed Parker to sign with the Hornets. "It was a good time for both of us," Borrego said. "I was looking for someone who knew what we were trying to build here — the culture, the system. He was looking for an opportunity to grow and try something different. It's been a good marriage for both of us. It's worked out for both sides. He's really helped us this season." Parker is averaging 9.4 points and 3.9 assists in 18 minutes a game off the Charlotte bench.