Lillard's return sparks balanced Blazers
The Trail Blazers needed their leader, and he needed them.
Damian Lillard's return to the basketball court was the point of convergence, and it couldn't have gone much better.
Lillard collected 22 points, five assists and four rebounds and played a big role in Portland's 125-104 victory over Washington on Wednesday night at Moda Center.
It was the first game since Feb. 12 for the Blazers' All-Star point guard, who missed the first six games after the All-Star break.
Lillard made 6 of 12 shots from the field, 4 of 7 from 3-point range — including a couple from "Logo" territory — and 6 of 6 at the free-throw line in an encouraging 32-minute performance. He said he felt "fresh" from the layoff heading into his first game in three weeks.
"The other day, I played a 32-minute, one-on-one, full-court game with one of our video dudes, so I knew I wouldn't be any more tired than that tonight," he said. "I thought I moved pretty well. I was able to do a lot of things. My balance was good. I picked my moments to explode and take off."
Portland coach Terry Stotts was pleased, too.
"He looked a little rusty at times, but his shot looked good," Stotts said. "It seems like he has totally recovered from the injury. He had a solid game. He didn't try to force too much; the game came pretty easy for him."
Lillard stayed home to rehab during the Blazers' recent three-game trip. It was the first time he'd not made a trip in his eight years with the club.
"It was weird," he said. "I didn't know what to do with myself. I was at home, working out, getting treatment, lifting. I'd come back to shoot at night. ... I was miserable a little bit. It felt like summer time. You have all this free time. I felt like I was doing something wrong."
It was the second straight win for the Blazers (28-35), and it wasn't a one-man show. Four players scored more than 20 points. Carmelo Anthony led the way with 25, scoring 20 in the first half. Hassan Whiteside had another big game with 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots. CJ McCollum — back in his normal shooting guard spot with Lillard at the point — chipped in 22 points, six rebounds and five assists.
"When we're balanced like that, it just makes us a harder team to guard," Lillard said. "You got guys screening for each other, the ball is moving, we're executing and playing with pace, being unselfish. When you do that, guys get high-quality looks and we have a chance to have a night like we had tonight."
Anthony played the entire first quarter, scoring 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting, 2 for 3 from 3-point range.
"I don't usually play him the whole first quarter, but he really had his rhythm going," Stotts said. "He had bounce, which was good to see."
"'Dame' coming back helps spread the court, and gives us another option," Anthony said. "We took advantage of that tonight.
"We were just ready to win this game, that's all. We didn't want to come out flat and play around with a team like that. (The Wizards) are a dangerous team. They don't quit. They play to the end. We see what they can do when (opponents) let their foot off the gas."
In reality, the Wizards (22-39) couldn't offer enough resistance to take the game 48 minutes. They were playing the final game of a four-game trip and the second of back-to-back games, and they're last in the NBA in defensive rating. The Blazers took advantage by shooting .519 from the field, including 12 for 31 from 3-point range.
Bradley Beal, Washington's All-Star guard, came into the game second in the league with a 30.5-point scoring average. He scored 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting in the first half, then was 3 for 18 in the second half to finish with 29 points.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Beal "got fouled all night, and he only got six free throws." The Blazers were more of the mind that Trevor Ariza's strong defense was the biggest factor.
"Trevor did a good job all night," Stotts said. "(Beal) scored in the first half, but I liked Trevor's persistence with him. He stayed with him and made it difficult for him."
Portland remained in ninth place in the NBA Western Conference, 3 1/2 games back of No. 8 Memphis (31-31), which destroyed Brooklyn 118-79 Wednesday night. The Blazers caught a break when New Orleans lost 127-123 in overtime at Dallas, but Sacramento — which comes for a visit to Moda Center on Saturday — is 27-34 and one percentage point behind the Blazers. And only 19 games remain on Portland's schedule.
"We have to go on a run, there's no two ways about it," Stotts said. "I'm not going to put a number (on how many wins they need), but we have to put some wins together."
If the Grizzlies play .500 ball the rest of the way, they'll finish 41-41. That would mean the Blazers would have to go 14-5 over their final 19 games to finish ahead of them. Then there are Sacramento, New Orleans and San Antonio, all nipping at their heels.
The Blazers play at Phoenix at 6 p.m. Friday, then begin a six-game homestand at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Kings. Itt includes a game against the Grizzlies.
"It's an opportunity, but we've been in this position before," Lillard said. "It's gut-check time. Every little thing matters. Everybody on the roster matters. How we prepare, what our mentality is, how we come into each game individually — it all matters.
"We want to put (a streak) together, but it has to be one game at a time. After that huge win in Orlando (on Monday), we came into this game with a business mentality. It was like, 'We got one; let's turn that into two.' Now going to the next game, it's, 'Let's turn it to three.' If we build like that, we'll find ourselves in a good position when these 19 games are up."
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