Lillard: 'We're getting better'

The Trail Blazers have been in position in the fourth quarter to win every game this season.

Terry Stotts draws that as a positive about his first Portland club.

But the familiar refrain is the Blazers haven’t had it down the stretch to win often enough the first two weeks of the season.

It happened again Monday night at the Rose Garden in Portland’s 95-87 loss to Atlanta (3-3).

Portland rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit, took the lead at 87-85 with 2:50 remaining, then was outscored 10-0 down the stretch by a mediocre Atlanta team playing the second of back-to-back games.

It was the fourth straight loss for Portland (2-5), which has been right there in each of its defeats. Going into the fourth quarter, the Blazers trailed by eight to Oklahoma City, by six to the Clippers, by four to Dallas, led by six against San Antonio and trailed by eight vs. the Hawks.

“We’re competing,” Stotts said. “The one thing I’ve learned about this team so far is (the players) compete and have a will to win. I don’t think that goes away.”

Will is one thing; performance is another. Portland shot only .361 from the field and .261 (6 for 23) from 3-point range. The Blazers committed 20 turnovers, which helped the Hawks — who shot .443 — forge a 26-10 lead in fast-break points.

The turnovers “were huge,” Stotts said. “We had 18 going into the fourth quarter. Our turnovers led to their transition (game). Some of the turnovers were careless — lazy passes, or not meeting the ball — and (the Hawks) fed off that. Our turnovers had a lot to do with their runs.”

Portland stayed close largely on the production of center J.J. Hickson, who worked his tail off in achieving season highs in points (19) and rebounds (18), his fourth double-double.

“We wouldn’t have been in the game without him,” Stotts said. “His energy particularly in the second half — he coupled his rebounding and scoring with some defensive plays. We need all that from him.”

The Blazers might have won had not LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard struggled so with their shot.

On a night when Aldridge dished off a career-high eight assists, the All-Star power forward made only 4 of 13 attempts from the field and matched his season low with 14 points.

Aldridge also missed a pair of free throws with Portland trailing 91-87 and 42 seconds remaining.

“I have to make those free throws,” he said. “Can’t go back in time, but they felt great as they left my hands, both of them.”

Lillard was only 5 for 18 from the field — 2 for 7 from 3-point range — and finished with 12 points, two assists and four turnovers.

“I got some good looks,” the rookie point guard said. “Probably got too deep on a couple of my drives and got myself in bad position. My shots just didn’t fall.”

The Hawks had everything going early, jumping to a 9-0 lead. Soon it was 20-7 and, early in the second quarter, 39-24.

Atlanta’s advantage was 56-47 at the half, but the Blazers — who entered the game last in the NBA in opponents’ field-goal percentage at .507 — amped up their defense to get back into the game after intermission.

With Nicolas Batum scoring 11 of his 19 points in the third quarter, the Blazers reeled in the Hawks, then overtook them midway through the fourth period. When Aldridge converted a three-point play with 2:40 remaining, Portland led 87-85.

For the Hawks, it was all downhill from there.

“A gutsy win by our guys,” Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. “We fell into a similar situation (Sunday) night in L.A., where we collapsed in the fourth quarter. Tonight we weathered the storm.”

Stotts said the outcome reminded him of Saturday’s 112-109 loss to San Antonio.

“We get ourselves in a hole and play our butts off and come up short,” he said. “We had a good defensive (second) half. Our defense put us in position to win a game, which up to this point we really hadn’t done.”

Hickson, who entered the game fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounds, crashed the boards with a vengeance at both ends.

“I wanted to come out and be physical,” he said. “I know I’m the only guy on this team who plays the way I play. I’m going to take it upon myself for the rest of the year to play the way I played tonight.”

Aldridge’s 13 shots were a season low, in part because the Hawks often sent double-teams his way.

“I was trying to be selective,” he said. “The shots I missed, I’d take them again. They were double-teaming me and I was making passes. Late I felt like they gave me more one-on-one coverage, though, and I was trying to make shots.

“I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t come through and help us win the game.”

Lillard already was looking ahead to Tuesday’s visit to Sacramento.

“I could have played better, but one thing I’ve learned — there’s another game coming,” he said. “Tonight I didn’t play like I wanted to, but I’m going to continue to be aggressive, play like I play — be myself — and hopefully we get a win (Tuesday).”

With one of the NBA’s youngest teams, Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey have pointed toward development of the team’s five rookies as a priority.

“I’m going to judge our team on how we’re playing and how we’re improving,” Stotts said. “Everybody in the locker room wants to win every game, and we’re not happy with the record. But you have to judge each individual on his improvement and play and effort — all those things. The record is important, but the other things are more important at this point.”

“Yeah, but there’s a sense of urgency to win games, too,” Aldridge said. “We’re not happy with being close. We’re trying to win every game. We’ll go to Sacramento and try to get a win.”

Said Lillard: “We’re getting better. A lot of people probably don’t see it, but every game we get a little bit closer. Once we get to the point where we don’t put ourselves in a hole to start with, that’s when we’ll start winning games.”

NOTES: Attendance at the 20,500-seat Rose Garden was 19,095, ending a 195-game sellout streak that began in December 2007. ... Josh Smith led Atlanta with 19 points and 10 rebounds. ... Hickson had already secured his double-double early in the third quarter. ... Several players, including Smith and Aldridge, wore red, white and blue headbands in a tribute to Veteran’s Day. ... Bailey Leonard, older brother of Blazer rookie Meyers Leonard, was at the Rose Garden as part of the Veteran’s Day celebration. Bailey Leonard recently retired as a Marine after two tours of duty in Afghanistan. ... The Blazers and Hawks went into Monday night having played 100 times in their history — and split the games exactly 50-50. ... Portland entered the game last in the NBA in opponents’ field-goal percentage at .507. Five of the first six opponents shot 50 percent or better. ... Atlanta’s bench outscored its Portland counterparts 26-6. The Blazers went into the game ranked next-to-last in the NBA in bench point differential (minus 28.0 per game, ahead of only Cleveland at minus 32.4) and last in bench scoring at 12.8. Next-to-last were the Los Angeles Lakers at 20.9.

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