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Dont look now, but Blazers in playoff hunt

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Trail Blazers center J.J. Hickson gets excited over a score as Portland beats Phoenix at the Rose Garden.It’s still early, folks, but the Trail Blazers are in position to make a run at the playoffs.

A 96-93 victory over Phoenix Saturday night at the Rose Garden pushed the Blazers (13-12) above the .500 mark for the first time since they were 2-1 on Nov. 3.

“This was our third chance (since then) to get over .500,” said rookie Damian Lillard, who scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half as Portland won its fifth straight game to close a six-game homestand. “To finally get it done feels good.

“To go four games below .500 and get on a winning streak and get it done — this lets us know we’re going in the right direction.”

Portland, which heads to Sacramento for a game Sunday night, is in the thick of a jumbled Western Conference race. The Blazers are in ninth place but are only a half-game behind Denver (15-13), Houston (14-12) and Minnesota (13-11), all sitting in a tie for sixth place. Of course, Utah (14-14), the Los Angeles Lakers (13-14) and Dallas (12-15) are just a step or two behind, too.

And don’t think Portland coach Terry Stotts isn’t paying attention.

“It’s tight in the middle of the conference right now,” the Blazers’ first-year mentor said. “I check the standings. I like to know where we are, who’s ahead, who’s behind and in what direction they are going.”

The Blazers, as Lillard points out, are going in the right direction with five successive victories after opening the homestand with a 99-80 loss to Sacramento back on Dec. 8.

“Trying to get six now,” said Portland’s Nicolas Batum, who wasn’t far from a rare quadruple-double Saturday night. “I’m glad we play Sac next.”

Are the young, thin Blazers good enough to make a run at the postseason?

“That’s what we want,” said Lillard, the odds-on favorite to win the NBA’s rookie of the year award. “Coming into the season, a lot of people said we were rebuilding and we weren’t going to be that good. We’ve worked hard. We wanted to come out and compete and give ourselves a chance to win games. We’ve been sticking with it this early part of the season and have been able to win some games.

“We’re capable of being a playoff team, as long as we keep doing what we’re doing.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge barrels in for two points in the Blazers' victory Saturday night over visiting Phoenix.Lillard’s second-half play was a huge factor as the Blazers rallied from a 12-point second-quarter deficit, then held off the Suns (11-16) down the stretch. He was 6 for 9 from the field, including 2 for 3 from 3-point range, after intermission.

“He got some big balls, man,” Portland center J.J. Hickson said of his young teammate. “He’s coming off pick-and-rolls and making the right decisions. He’s taking the shot when he has it, and when he doesn’t he’s making the right reads. And he’s only going to get better.”

“I just had to keep being aggressive,” Lillard said. “I figured it was a stretch where we needed to turn it up. I wanted to force the issue. If there wasn’t a shot for me, I could make a play for someone else.”

The Blazers pulled out their fourth straight single-digit victory despite committing 13 of 22 turnovers in the first half— ironically, their exact numbers in a 114-87 burial at Phoenix on Nov. 23.

“I don’t know why we’ve had such trouble (with turnovers) with this team,” said Batum, who collected 13 points, nine rebounds and eight assists along with a career-high seven giveaways. “It’s not like they’re a great defensive team.

“Including a preseason game, that’s three times in two months against the same team. I don’t know why. Hopefully we’ll do a better job taking care of the ball against them next time.”

“It wasn’t anything they forced us into,” said Hickson, who put up his seventh straight double-double with 19 points and 15 rebounds. “It was careless turnovers. That aspect of the game, we shot ourselves in the foot.

“But we got the win. We’re finally figuring out what it takes to win games when they get close.”

Phoenix led 47-35 late in the second quarter and took a 53-44 advantage into intermission. The Blazers closed the third quarter with a 12-2 run — the Suns went the final 3:45 without a basket — to go into the final period tied at 75-75.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Sasha Pavlovic and Lillard gave Portland a 92-85 edge with 4:02 left. The Suns hung around, though, and Marcin Gortat scored on consecutive layups to trim the deficit to 94-91 with 1:25 remaining.

Lillard drilled a step-back 17-footer with 41.9 seconds to go for a 96-91 advantage, but the Suns’ Jared Dudley scored quickly on a layup. And when Lillard’s driving layup in heavy traffic missed, the Suns had a chance to tie with 17 seconds to go on their final possession.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Nicolas Batum of the Blazers takes a hard foul by Phoenix during the Blazers' 96-93 victory, their fifth in a row.Eschewing the opportunity to call a timeout, they moved quickly upcourt, then passed the ball around until Goran Dragic was forced to heave up a desperation three from the top that banked off the glass just before the buzzer sounded.

“That was great recognition by everybody to not give up a three in that situation,” Stotts said. “Everybody was determined not to give a clean look at a three.”

Why did the Suns not call timeout?

“I thought we could get a quick two,” Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. “Then we peeled off and started looking for a three, and just never got the timeout called.”

“We found a way to win,” said Stotts, pointing immediately to the rebounding numbers.

Portland won the boards 45-32 — its biggest positive margin on the glass this season. The advantage was 27-16 in the second half.

“And we held (the Suns) to 40-percent shooting in the second half,” Stotts said. “Damian made some big shots down the stretch, but our defense gave our offense some momentum.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Blazers point guard Damian Lillard looks for a lane. Lillard helped Portland rally from a 12-point deficit to beat Phoenix.NOTES — Portland is on its first five-game win streak since February 2011. ... LaMarcus Aldridge returned after missing Monday’s win over Denver with a sprained ankle. Portland’s power forward had 17 points and nine rebounds but was only 5 for 15 from the field. ... Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews started but went scoreless in 10 minutes before departing for good, evidently feeling the effects of the hip injury that has bothered him for two weeks. “I took him out,” Stotts said. “He went back to the locker room and didn’t feel like he could contribute. He felt like he was hurting the team by being out there.” ... Hickson had 13 points and eight rebounds in the first quarter. He now has 15 double-doubles, putting him in a tie with San Antonio’s Tim Duncan for fifth in the NBA in the category. Hickson, who was 8 for 11 from the field, is the first Blazer to record seven straight double-doubles since Arvydas Sabonis in November 1997.

Phoenix entered the game with a four-game win streak, all coming at home. The Suns are 2-11 on the road. ... Phoenix veteran Jermaine O’Neal, a one-time Blazer, came off the bench for 13 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes. ... Portland has beaten Phoenix seven straight times at the Rose Garden. ... Lillard had seven assists, giving him eight games in which he has had at least 20 points and seven assists. That ties him with Stephen Curry on the list, behind only LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. ... Portland’s bench scored 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting. Rookie Victor Claver had a season-high seven points to go with four rebounds in 15 minutes.



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