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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Lillard's hot start keeps Portland afloat, though some tough road games are ahead

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Damian Lillard has been leading the way most nights, but the Trail Blazers have been a mixed bag this season. The Trail Blazers carry a 4-6 record into Tuesday night's visit to Sacramento to face the 3-6 Kings.

It's not what the Blazers had in mind heading into the season, but it beats 3-7, which is what they would have been had they not pulled out a 124-113 win in overtime against 3-6 Atlanta on Sunday night at Moda Center.

Heading into overtime after the Hawks' Kevin Huerter forced the extra session on a driving bank shot with .7 of a second left, Damian Lillard gathered his teammates in a huddle.

"I told them, 'Sometimes when you're struggling and having a hard time, you get put in these type of situations where you have to see how bad you want it,' " Lillard said. "'You have to dig out and do it as a group.'

"Once we went into overtime, I felt like we were just doing the right things. I don't think we could have played that five minutes any better than we did with the game on the line."

Kent Bazemore said he had a pregame discussion with Lillard in the training room.

"'Dame' said when adversity hits, this is the stuff that builds character,' " Bazemore said. "Go play the season, we get our guys back (from injuries) and this will be the beginning of the story how we were able to keep it together after a rough start of the season ... how we were able to weather the storm and come out victorious."

In his first start as a Blazer, Bazemore played an integral part in the victory over the team that traded him to Portland during the offseason. The 6-5 swing man knocked down back-to-back shots to open the overtime. He also had prime defensive responsibility on the Hawks' leading scorer, Trae Young. Atlanta's 6-1 second-year guard scored 35 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed eight rebounds, but he was a lousy 9 for 30 from the field (3 for 13 from 3-point range) and had seven turnovers in his 43 minutes.

"Kent had a terrific game," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He got us off to a great start in overtime with those 3's, and defensively, he was solid all night guarding Young."

"(Young) had the ball in his hands pretty much the whole game," Lillard said. "Kent was on him. That type of effort is tough, and he was there all night. And down the stretch, he was rewarded for his effort and being locked into that with the two big 3's. His effort on the defensive end, him taking that challenge, was really big. It got his mind into the game. It was pertinent — against his former team in a game that we really needed."

PMG PHOTO: DEREK WILEY - Kent Bazemore's play at both ends of the court made a big impact for the Trail Blazers on Sunday night as they held off the Atlanta Hawks at Moda Center.Bazemore admitted there was "a little added motivation" going against the team that traded him for Evan Turner, who was in street clothes on the Atlanta bench with an Achilles' tendon injury.

"Every guy, once he leaves a team, is always look at getting back at them," Bazemore said. "Those are my guys. It was good to be out there competing against them."

In regulation, Bazemore — who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds — didn't provide much offense. There was plenty of that from Lillard (30 points, seven rebounds, six assists), CJ McCollum (23 points, eight rebounds), Hassan Whiteside (21 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Anfernee Simons (a season-high 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting). It was the first time four Blazers have scored 20 or more in the same game since March 2014 against Milwaukee.

With the victory, the Blazers avoided starting a home season 0-4 for the first time in their 50-year history. The last time they started 0-3 was 1971-72, the franchise's second season.

Portland had lost four in a row overall, three of them by six points or fewer.

At game's end, "We just let our breath out," Lillard said. "At the end of a lot of games this season, the other team has been getting the deflection, the extra rebound, making the dagger 3-pointer. ... tonight it was like us doing those things. All those things went in our favor. It finally went our way."

• Injuries have taken an early toll on the Blazers. Center Jusuf Nurkic isn't expected back until at least January as he recovers from surgery for a broken tibia. Center Pau Gasol seems in no hurry to return from May foot surgery. Power forward Zach Collins is lost for perhaps the rest of the regular season after shoulder surgery. Whiteside missed a game with an ankle sprain, and small forward Rodney Hood sat out the Atlanta game with back spasms.

"It's been a little haphazard," Stotts said, and he's right.

The Blazers went into Sunday ranked 25th in the NBA in rebounding percentage. Opponents have attacked the basket, with only Whiteside as a rim protector. Collins' presence is missed both on the boards and on the defensive interior.

• Portland is last in the league in assists at 17.2 per game. Only two other teams average below 20. Is that an indication that the Blazers aren't moving and sharing the ball?

"The last three or four years, we haven't been a big assists team," Stotts said. "Last year, we were in the bottom five, but No. 3 offensively."

Stotts is correct. Last season, the Blazers finished 26th in assists average at 22.5 but were third in overall offensive rating.

In 2017-18, Portland was last in the league with 19.5 assists. In 2016-17, the Blazers were 26th at 20.9.

Stotts believes the primary reason for the low assists totals is that Lillard and McCollum create the bulk of their own shots.

"I would love the ball to move a little bit more, but the reality is, our best players play well off the dribble," he said. "A very small number of 'Dame's' field goals are assisted. In some ways, that's who we are. But I would like to get (the assists average) up. You appreciate passing and assists."

The Blazers could increase their assists total just by getting the ball to Whiteside three or four more times a game in scoring position. A lob, or even an entry pass when he is posted low, could create more opportunities for the 7-1 center, who is shooting .568 from the field.

• The Blazers began Sunday 13th in the NBA in offensive rating (108.4), a measure below where they finished last year.

Their defensive rating is almost exactly what it was at the end of last season (109.5, tied for 16th), but at 109.4 they're in a tie for 23rd this season.

The Blazers are particularly struggling with their defense late in games. They rank last in the NBA in opponents' fourth-quarter scoring at 32.5 per game. The Hawks scored 32 in the fourth quarter Sunday night, only to get outscored 17-8 in overtime.

"We need to be better," Stotts said. "Sometimes, it's offensive rebounding, or we foul too much. It's hurt us in many games. We've played a lot of close games, and to win those you have to be a better defensive team in the fourth quarter."

• One of Portland's assets is the offense of Simons, who is the team's No. 4 scorer at 11.9 points despite averaging only 20 minutes per game.

He is shooting superbly — .500 from the field, .407 from 3-point range — and can get his baskets in a variety of ways.

The 20-year-old guard scores in bunches, too. He piled up 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting — 2 for 2 on 3-point attempts — in 8 1/2 minutes of the third quarter.

"We trained a lot together this summer," Lillard said. "I know his disposition. I know he has real confidence, and he won't waver.

"I was expecting him to come out and be strong off the bench for us. That he has been able to do well has only made him more comfortable. He is coming up big for us in real big moments."

• McCollum's numbers were better Sunday than they'd been for the previous five games, but he still struggled with his shot, especially from the perimeter — he was 1 for 6 from beyond the arc.

McCollum is shooting .391 from the field and .308 from 3-point range while averaging 19.8 points. Those figures will come up, and they have to if the Blazers are to accomplish what they intend to this season.

When you're making $27.5 million, a lot is expected of you.

• Lillard, meanwhile, is off to the start he was hoping for.

The franchise-record 60-point outburst in the 119-115 loss to Brooklyn on Friday night helped stoke his scoring average to its current 33.0, second in the league behind James Harden's 37.3.

Lillard is shooting .493 from the field, .392 from 3-point range and .909 from the line while averaging 6.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds.

Over the course of a season, those are Most Valuable Player-like stats.

Opponents treat him with special care.

"There are certain guys you can't let have a rhythm," Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce said before Sunday's game. "Kemba (Walker) is my favorite guard in this league. I love the way he plays, because he plays with a smile on his face all the time. He's dropping 30 and laughing and smiling at you. Not in a bad way; he just enjoys the game.

"Guys like Kemba and Dame and Kyrie (Irving) and Steph (Curry), those guards who have the basketball in their hands a long period of time and can shoot from anywhere on the floor — there's never a moment where you can relax. (Lillard) is in that category. There are nights where he's the top, and there are nights where he's just amongst. He has proven himself to be in that conversation because of what he can do at any time. It's respect we'll treat him with, and it's appropriate fear. We know as soon as he crosses halfcourt he's a threat."

• After Sacramento, Portland has a Wednesday home date with defending NBA champion Toronto, followed by a six-game road trip that begins with stops at San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans and Milwaukee.

If the Blazers, who play 13 of their first 18 games on the road, can return from the six-game odyssey at .500 or better, they'll be in good shape to finish the calendar year strong. Twelve of the ensuing 16 games will be at home.

"Our eyes are still set on winning the championship," Bazemore said. "It's a very long season. There are ebbs and flows, ups and downs.

"Our locker room has stayed supremely positive. Dame has been a great leader. CJ, Coach Stotts, the coaching staff — we've all shown up every day ready to get after it and believing we can turn this thing around."

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@kerryeggers


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