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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Practice makes better against Phoenix, now comes showdown with Memphis

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - LILLARDTwo nights earlier, the Phoenix Suns had knocked off Eastern Conference kingpin Milwaukee 140-131.

In their last two outings, the Trail Blazers had fallen to the West rival Suns and to Sacramento, the Kings at home.

But every night in the NBA — especially this season, it seems — is different.

And Tuesday night at Moda Center, the Blazers were the ones celebrating at the end of a 121-105 win over the Suns.

Damian Lillard led four players scoring 20 points or more with 25 for the Blazers (29-37), who needed a victory like Joe Biden needed South Carolina.

"Good to have a win," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "Our last two games were frustrating. We didn't play very well. I liked our focus the entire game tonight. Phoenix has been playing well. We need every win, but I liked the way we played."

In last Saturday's matchup, the Suns knocked down 21 of 39 3-point attempts. Center Aron Baynes hit 11 of them en route to a career-high 37-point performance.

On Tuesday, Portland was the hot-shooting team, firing at a .506 clip from the field while making 17 of 35 3-point attempts (.486). Phoenix, meanwhile, sank only 11 of 32 tries (.344) from the 3-point line. Baynes scored seven points on 3-for-14 shooting, including 1 of 7 from beyond the arc.

Defense was a priority for the Blazers, who came into the game 27th in the NBA in defensive rating. The Suns (26-39), who shot .402 from the field, missed some open shots. But Portland's defense was better, too, thanks in part to Monday's practice session.

"Everybody's defense was good tonight," Stotts said. "It helped that we had a practice. The Phoenix game was fresh in our minds. We were able to go over things that gave us trouble in the first game."

Trevor Ariza made Devin Booker work for his 29 points, the Suns' All-Star guard making only 9 of 25 shots from the field. Portland totaled nine steals and nine blocked shots.

"It was really good defense," said Lillard, who had three steals and two blocks. "From the start, we were locked into what we needed to do.

"We were just more present, showing help, making them play in crowds. The communication was much better. Baynes was shooting over hands. We just weren't so spaced out; that made a difference. It was an emphasis on helping out each other, closing out to shooters, making them move the ball around the floor."

Portland had great scoring balance. Lillard was 5 for 10 on 3's, had seven assists and grabbed five rebounds in 40 minutes. CJ McCollum and Ariza each scored 22 points, the latter's total a season high. He also made 5 of 8 treys and grabbed six rebounds. Carmelo Anthony contributed 21 points and five assists.

The only starter who didn't reach 20 points was center Hassan Whiteside, who scored 16 points on 8-for-12 shooting to go with 14 rebounds and two blocks.

Portland has been hurt all season by its 3-point defense. Coming into Tuesday's game, opponents had taken the fourth-most 3-point shots against an NBA defense, with the second-most makes (13.3 per game). The Blazers were yielding the third-worst 3-point percentage (.377).

"Numbers don't lie," Stotts said before the game. "Teams are shooting well against us. But look at Milwaukee — the best defensive team in the league, and the Suns shot the 3 really well against them, too.

"Sometimes teams get on a roll. For the most part, we contest shots well. ... But teams are shooting better than you'd expect them to shoot."

Tuesday was an outlier, but something the Blazers hope is a portent. The next game is 7 p.m. Thursday at Moda Center against Memphis, in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. The Grizzlies (32-33), who lost to Orlando on Tuesday, are 3 1/2 games ahead of Portland, New Orleans (28-36) and Sacramento (28-36), with San Antonio (27-36) another half-game back.

"Coming off the game in Phoenix, we wanted to come back and show better in a game we really needed," Lillard said. "To make a final push for the playoffs, we had to have this one.

"It's the only chance we've got. That's why you saw the kind of effort and focus you saw tonight. It's not going to happen unless we come with the defense we showed tonight."

Portland, 0-2 against the Grizzlies this season, also will play them at home on April 5.

"They're the team we're chasing," Lillard said. "(Winning Thursday's game) would be like winning two games. It's a game on our home floor, a game we're more than capable of winning. We just have to come prepared, come sharp and get it done."

It will probably take at least a .500 record to make the playoffs in the West. That would mean the Blazers need to close out the season 12-4. So is Thursday's game a must-win?

"Every game the rest of the way is pretty much a must-win, a game we have to win," Ariza said. "We didn't do a good job earlier in the season or post-All-Star break as far as winning games we should win. So at this point, every game is a must-win. Hopefully this last stretch we're able to put enough wins together to get into the playoffs."

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@kerryeggers


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