Blazers' backcourt keys win
When Carmelo Anthony left the game in the second quarter Friday night at Moda Center with an injury, it seemed as if the basketball gods were frowning again on the Trail Blazers.
Portland was well on its way to a 118-103 victory over Orlando, matching its season high streak of three games. An injury that would keep Anthony out of extended action, though, would have been a cruel blow to a team already hammered with hurts.
So when Anthony confirmed after the game that it was a left knee contusion, that it was nothing serious and that he "intends" to play in Saturday's home date with Minnesota, it was welcome news in Rip City.
"I banged knees with either (Nikola) Vucevic or (Aaron) Gordon in the first quarter," said the veteran power forward, who is averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in 15 games since joining the Blazers in late November. "I felt it tighten up. I came back in the second (quarter) and it stiffened up on me."
The Blazers (13-16) led by 20 points late in the first quarter and were ahead 35-27 when he departed in the second quarter.
"The guys had it rolling," he said. "I just didn't want to take the chance of going out there. I'd rather those guys go out there and do what they do and let me get right, let me be cautious about it."
The Blazers certainly had things well in hand, thanks in no small part to the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combined for 67 points.
Lillard scored 36 points on 13-for-21 shooting, including 7 for 13 from 3-point range. McCollum was 12 for 20, including 4 for 8 on 3-point attempts, and scored 31 points.
The pair have now scored 30 points apiece in back-to-back games. It's the second time they've done it and the third time it has happened in franchise history. Lillard and McCollum did it in 2016; Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks had accomplished it in 1973.
"I was able to get some opportunities," Lillard said. "Once you see (the ball) go in a few times, even hard ones are good looks."
The Magic (12-17), on the final leg of a rough four-game trip, never found their shooting touch. They were 6 for 28 from the field in the first quarter and shot .368 for the game, including 7 for 28 (.250) from 3-point range. The Blazers felt their defense was a big part of it, anchored by Hassan Whiteside. The 7-foot center continued his run of outstanding games, collecting 10 points, 17 rebounds and five blocked shots in 33 minutes.
'We were good tonight defensively," McCollum said. "That's the biggest thing for us. Offensively, we usually figure things out. We have to do a better job of staying locked in on the defensive end. We've been doing that better the last three games."
The stats only partially support that theory. Phoenix shot .456 from the field and .353 from 3-point range in a 111-110 loss on Monday. Golden State shot only .398 from the field but .421 on 3-point attempts in a 122-112 setback on Wednesday. The Magic were at least part of their own undoing on Friday.
"There's no question," Orlando coach Steve Clifford said after observing the wreckage, "we need to make open shots."
The schedule has played its part in the Blazers' recent surge, and it may continue. Minnesota (10-17) comes in Saturday, perhaps without center Karl-Anthony Towns, who missed Friday's loss at Denver with a knee injury. On Monday, New Orleans (7-22) comes to town to finish a four-game homestand for the local quintet.
Portland is now in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of No. 9 Sacramento (12-16). The Blazers have won four of the last five.
"It feels good for the game to feel like we're supposed to win," Lillard said. "When it gets down the stretch, whether it's a tough game or whatever, it feels like we're going to pull it out — not like, all right, how is this going to go? That's a great feeling to have. That shows our confidence and demeanor as a team is going in the direction it needs to. It feels like we're rolling."
Maybe. For sure, the Blazers can afford no more injuries. Ten players suited Friday night, and Mario Hezonja played 11 minutes on a back that is clearly still bothering him. Rookie Nassir Little has missed the last four games with back spasms. If Anthony can't play against the Timberwolves, what will coach Terry Stotts do?
"You know our roster," Stotts said grimly.
The hope is that Anthony will be ready to go.
"I'll come in the gym (Saturday) early," he said Friday night, "and see how it feels."
Stotts is crossing his fingers, and every other body part available.
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