Blazers Beat: Lillard, Portland want to finish NBA's first half strong
What's ahead: Entering the week, the Blazers had six games remaining before the NBA All-Star Game break. After games Monday at Phoenix and Tuesday at Denver, they were set to play at the Los Angeles Lakers, 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, and then play three games at Moda Center — Charlotte (March 1), Golden State (March 3), Sacramento (March 4).
"The quality of basketball we've been playing will stand up against any team," said Damian Lillard, who was named NBA Western Conference player of the week (for week ending Feb. 21).
What's behind: The Blazers' recent win streak reached six games, as Lillard finished off a great road trip with clutch play at the end of wins at Dallas (go-ahead 3-pointer), Oklahoma City and New Orleans.
He had four 3-pointers and two assists in an 18-2 run that gave Portland a 115-104 win at OKC on Feb. 16; he had 31 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. The next night, Lillard had another epic game with 43 points, which included seven 3-pointers, and a career-high-tying 16 assists, in a 126-124 win against the Pelicans. He scored or assisted on all but one of Portland's scoring possessions in the final 7:23 of the game, scoring 11 points and dishing out four assists.
Facing another sub-.500 upon returning home, the Blazers' defense let them down, as Washington with Bradley Beal (37 points) and Russell Westbrook (triple double) beat them 118-111 Feb. 20. Lillard had 35 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. It was an odd game, as Portland scored 80 points in the first and third quarters combined and 31 in the second and fourth. And, the Blazers outscored the Wizards by 39 points on 3-pointers (19 makes on a team-record 55 attempts) and still lost.
Youth growth: Lillard said it's been a fun season, not only because of his play and the team's play, but because he's enjoyed watching the growth of young players, including Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, CJ Elleby and Harry Giles — not to mention Gary Trent Jr. (who has really established himself as a solid NBA player).
"We've been able to sustain a certain level and win games … while (young players) come in and grow and perform at the same time," he said. "Being in my ninth year … I've seen them get on the court for meaningful minutes, and I've had as much fun watching and being a part of that than I've had in a long time."
Playing D: Coach Terry Stotts said Portland's defense had "ticked in the positive direction," but then Washington scorched it with layups and hot shooting.
"We cannot let our offense affect our defense," Enes Kanter said. "We're not going to make every shot. When we start missing shots, we have to get back and play better defense."
Chemistry: Interesting comment from Kanter, who said without injured CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic the chemistry of the team hasn't been solidified yet.
"We're not there, yet, but we are on that path," he said. "Once we get everybody back ... to get to the next level, it'll take chemistry. We believe in our leaders — CJ , Dame and Melo (Carmelo Anthony), we're not worried about that."
Online: For more on the Blazers, including game coverage, see portlandtribune.com.
— Jason Vondersmith
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