Portland still in 'exhibition mode' but wins opener
by: JAIME VALDEZ Trail Blazers forward Gerald Wallace grimaces while being fouled by Philadelphia's Louis Williams in the fourth quarter of Monday night's season opener at the Rose Garden.

With 16.7 seconds left and the Trail Blazers clinging to a 105-103 lead over Philadelphia Monday night, Portland coach Nate McMillan must have been thinking that old Laurel and Hardy line: 'How did we get ourselves into this mess?'

With six minutes remaining, Portland had been comfortably in front 96-80, and the sellout Rose Garden crowd of 20,509 was rocking in anticipation of an opening-night blowout victory.

When the final horn sounded - after the 76ers' Andre Iguodala missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the score - the Blazers headed to the locker room with a 107-103 victory, breathing a collective sigh of relief.

'We have to find a way to close out games,' said Portland center Marcus Camby, who contributed six points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots in 29 minutes. 'We're up double digits in the fourth, then we let that team come back.

'But Philly was gritty. (The 76ers) were fighting and clawing all the way down to the end.'

'Normally you get seven or eight exhibition games; we got two,' said guard Jamal Crawford, who scored 12 points off the bench in his Blazer debut. 'Everybody's still somewhat in exhibition mode. But to learn from victory is a lot better than learning from defeat.'

Indeed, a win is a win, especially in this truncated season in which NBA teams will play 66 games in 120 days.

But the Blazers couldn't help but feel they should have put away the 76ers a couple of times, including the first quarter, when the hometown quintet led by 13 points late in the period.

'We should have blown that one open,' said forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Blazers with 25 points, seven rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots in 42 minutes. 'We had (the 76ers) down early. They kept grinding it out, kept making plays, and we got a little tired. They pushed us to the limit tonight.'

Iguodala and Lou Williams spearheaded the fourth-quarter surge that brought Philadelphia back, combining for the 76ers' last 16 points over the last 3:23 of the game.

Williams was out-of-his-mind hot late, scoring the Sixers' final 10 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers that drew the visitors to within 105-103.

'I think he shot one from the free-throw circle,' McMillan observed.

Williams finished with 25 points in 27 minutes off the bench. The 6-1 seventh-year pro went scoreless in the first and third quarters but tallied 12 points in the second period and 13 in the fourth.

'I've seen him do it before, being in the East,' said Crawford, who played all but a half-season of his 11 previous NBA seasons for Eastern Conference teams. 'He has games like that.

'When you're down 15-16 points, you have nothing to lose. You can go out there and play as free as you want to. It's almost a hurry-up offense. You just go out there and play. He got comfortable, and he almost brought us down.'

Portland shot only .412 from the field - .382 in the first half - and committed seven of its 12 turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Blazers turned 20 Philadelphia turnovers into 28 points, though, grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and were 7 of 10 from 3-point range after going only 2 for 9 from beyond the stripe before halftime.

"They had two or three stretches where they hit some killer threes," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. "Our competitive will kept us in the game.

"But that Portland team is good, really good. (The Blazers) have size, versatility ... Crawford is going to be a terrific player for them, and (Raymond) Felton is going to be big for them. It was just rebounding and turnovers - that was the deal."

'We were up and down,' McMillan said. 'Our defense was pretty good the first half. The second half, (the 76ers) started penetrating and got to the rim for second opportunities. And Williams and Iguodala made shots down the stretch.

'There was a lot of good in the game, but there's a lot of room for improvement.'

The Blazers have vowed to run more this season, and they had 15 fast-break points - 11 in the second half.

'We had really good moments where we pushed the ball, we rebounded, we ran,' Aldridge said. 'Then we had moments where we had bad breakdowns. It's about us getting in game shape.'

Four players made their first appearance in a Portland uniform, including Crawford, who scored seven of his points in a third-quarter flurry. He had four rebounds, four assists and four steals in 22 minutes.

'Tonight was about trying to figure out the rotation and looking at the combinations,' McMillan said. Crawford 'got a rhythm going and we were able to finish this game. Still a work in progress here.'

Aldridge, who missed the first preseason game following a heart procedure, notched 18 points and five rebounds while guiding Portland to a 48-44 halftime lead. The Blazers' power forward had no points and no rebounds, though, in a nine-minute stint in the fourth quarter.

'I didn't feel tired from running; I felt tired trying to get my legs in my shot,' he said. 'That's going to be me getting used to playing minutes late.'

McMillan used 10 players, but only eight saw more than three minutes of action. Seven made major contributions to the first win of the season.

'I like our team,' Camby said. 'I especially like the depth. The second unit didn't skip a beat. They had energy, put some points on the board. We're a complete team, and we're going to need something from a lot of guys with this schedule.'

NOTES - Portland plays the second of a three-game homestand Tuesday night against Sacramento, a 100-91 winner over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday. 'We're going to have our work cut out for us, playing that young team,' Camby said. 'We know they get up and down. They have some great young players. DeMarcus Cousins is a load inside, Tyreke Evans is healthy now, and that Jimmer guy (Fredette) ... In the preseason, he shot the ball particularly well.' ... six Blazers scored in double figures, including Gerald Wallace (21 points, nine rebounds). Felton, an offseason acquisition, had 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes. ... Wesley Matthews scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half. ... Matthews and Felton each shot 4 for 14 from the field. ... Portland rookie guard Nolan Smith swished his first shot, a 3-point attempt early in the second quarter. He finished with three points in three minutes. ... Iguodala collected 22 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots in 40 minutes. Teammate Spencer Hawes fell a rebound short of his first career triple-double, going for 10 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. ... It was the 160th straight Rose Garden sellout dating to December 2007. ... the Blazers have won 11 consecutive home openers. ... McMillan went over .500 during his time as Portland's coach (247-246).

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