'Dame' old story, with a happy twist
It seemed inevitable that a player of Damian Lillard's magnitude would eventually get a triple-double in an NBA game.
When it happened Wednesday night in the Trail Blazers' 125-112 victory over Houston at Moda Center, the man of the hour showed as much relief as anything.
"I mean, it's about time," Lillard said to the chuckles of his media audience. "It's been eight years."
Indeed, Lillard is in the eighth season of a potential Hall of Fame career. His counterpart at point guard Wednesday night, Houston's Russell Westbrook, has 128 triple-doubles in his 12 seasons.
So triple-doubles aren't Lillard's thing. When Lillard totaled 36 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against the Rockets, he was pleased, but mostly because it came in a victory against a good team.
"There have been plenty of times when I could have hunted it, where I was two rebounds or one assist away," he said. "I never wanted to go out there and just chase it. Growing up, my dad would be on my case about playing the game the right way and letting it play out the way it's supposed to. That's been my approach to the triple-double."
With six minutes left and the Blazers ahead 114-95, Lillard was two rebounds shy of the triple-double. When he got his ninth rebound with 4:35 remaining, an alarm went off in his brain.
"It was like, 'All right, I can't walk off the court with nine (rebounds),'" he said.
With his teammates imploring him to go get one more, "I was getting in position for a defensive rebound, crashing the offensive glass," he said.
Inside the final minute, McCollum missed a jumper and Lillard crashed.
"Once the shot came off (the rim), I jumped first and got my hand on it and tried to tip it in," he said.
The tip missed, but it counted as a rebound and a missed shot.
"i'm happy for him," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "He has been playing great. I'm glad they called that last tip a rebound. I'm surprised he hasn't had (a triple-double) before now. He plays an all-around game."
For the second time in two weeks, the Blazers (21-27) knocked off a Houston team (29-18) significantly ahead of them in the Western Conference. For the second straight time, they held the NBA's scoring leader — guard James Harden — to fewer than 20 points.
"Holding Harden under 20 twice in a row is quite an accomplishment," Stotts said.
In a 117-107 loss at Houston on Jan. 15, Harden was 3 for 12 from the field and scored a season-low 13 points. On Wednesday night, with Trevor Ariza giving primary defensive coverage, "The Beard" managed 18 points on 5-for-18 shooting to go with six turnovers.
If there is a player in the league Moda Center denizens love to hate, it's Westbrook. The Rockets' super villain had a big game with 39 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but he met his match in Lillard, who is on the greatest streak of his career.
Over the last four games, the Western Conference Player of the Week is averaging 49.3 points, 9.8 assists and 8.0 rebounds. Lillard is shooting .532 from the field, .559 from 3-point range and .918 from the free-throw line. In those games, he has averaged 8.3 made 3-pointers and 11.7 made free throws.
"I've never seen him playing better than he's playing right now," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I thought we did a good job on him; we held him to 36."
D'Antoni tried a number of players and defensive strategies against Lillard. None worked.
"They have one of the best offensive players who just broke us down," D'Antoni said. "We tried to double him every time, but he's really friggin' good. He hit a couple from almost half-court. We double and he goes around the double. Sometimes you run up against somebody who just plays better than you."
Lillard had help. In his third game as a Blazer, Ariza proved valuable at both ends, scoring 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting — including 3 for 6 on treys — and keeping Harden in check at the defensive end.
"Trevor was huge," Lillard said. "He has been from the get-go. He has been impacting our team defensively, just being a vet and understanding and being able to change the game on the defensive end. The way he runs the floor, the way he screens, his understanding of spacing in situations on offense — it has really helped us."
The Rockets went small often, for a while in the second half using four guards and 6-5 small forward P.J. Tucker. The Blazers took advantage, going to 7-1 center Hassan Whiteside on several opportunities. He was effective in many ways, finishing with 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in 28 minutes.
"The best rim protector in the league," said Lillard of Whiteside, who leads the NBA with 3.1 blocks per game. "He did a great job."
Houston came into the game as the No. 2 scoring team in the league, averaging 116.7 points. Portland held them below that, and to lower-than-average shooting percentages from the field (.426) and 3-point line (.362). Not bad for a team that entered the night at No. 27 in defensive rating.
The Blazers (21-27) remained 10th in the West, three games back of No. 8 Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. They've won three of their last four games, the last two over playoff teams.
"The last time we had a good stretch of games that we won, it was against teams that weren't in the playoffs," Lillard said. "I was encouraged by it, because I thought the style we played would stand up against good teams, but we weren't able to execute those things against good teams.
"This stretch of games, we've been consistent. The way we're playing, this is probably our best stretch of the year. And it's coming at the right time."
The Blazers now will travel to Los Angeles to play the first-place Lakers (36-10) on a momentous night at Staples Center. It will be the first game for the Lakers since the death of Kobe Bryant.
"It's going to be super emotional," Lillard said. "We'll be in his building, playing his team ... when you think Lakers, you think Kobe. They'll do a tribute for him ... people are going to feel those emotions. there's no denying it or getting around it."
The Lakers are tough enough as it is. They may have a little extra motivation for this one.
"It's going to be a tough night for a lot of people," Stotts said. "It will be interesting to see how it evolves."
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