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Same old song as Blazers' rally falls short


So much for the Trail Blazers getting well against a soft opponent at home.

Phoenix came to town with the worst record in the Western Conference, but even the lowly Suns were too much for Portland to get back on the winning track Tuesday night at the Rose Garden.

On a career night for point guard Goran Dragic and a good night for many of his teammates, the Suns rode a dominant first half to a 102-98 victory over the Blazers.

Dragic scored 16 points and dished out a career-high 18 points for Phoenix (18-36), which snapped a four-game losing streak.

J.J. Hickson had another monster game with 25 points and 16 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent defeat for Portland (25-29), which rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit, only to fall short and match its season-high losing streak at six games.

And suddenly the Blazers, who have played above expectations much of the season, are in danger of fading from the West playoff picture. They stand 3 1/2 games back of eighth-place Houston (29-26), tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for ninth and a game ahead of Dallas (23-29) in the race to fill the eight conference postseason spots.

“We have 28 games to go,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Nothing’s slipping away. We got the Lakers (at Staples Center) on Friday, and we gotta go play.”

Portland has made a habit of falling behind early in games, then waging a furious comeback that has sometimes produced victory, but more often ends in defeat. The Blazers are 4-9 in games decided by four points or fewer.

“We’ve been doing this to ourselves all season,” said rookie point guard Damian Lillard, who had 24 points and seven assists, but made only 8 of 19 shots from the field and committed six turnovers. “Now there’s a stretch coming up where we have to figure it out how to put full games together.

“When a team is playing as well as (the Suns) were tonight, we don’t have room to spot them 12 points. We have to get something going fast, because we’re running out of time.”

Indeed, the Suns were on from the get-go and the Blazers very much off. Phoenix jumped in front 12-0 as Portland missed its first eight shots from the field.

“The slow start had a lot to do with the first half,” said Stotts, referring to the deficits after one quarter (36-23), late in the second quarter (63-44) and at halftime (63-47).

“We didn’t quite have it for a spell there,” Stotts said. “I very disappointed with the defense in the first half. We gave up 63 points on 60 percent shooting. We can’t afford to come out and let a team execute and do what they want to do.”

It was the first game after the All-Star break, and only the Suns looked energized.

“We came out flat,” said Hickson, the Blazer with the most bounce to his step. “We weren’t assertive on defense. On the offensive end, we had good looks, we just couldn’t knock down shots. It was a rough start for us.”

Lillard had participated in the Rising Stars Challenge and the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend, but said he wasn’t fatigued.

“The first day I got back, I was kind of tired,” he said. “Today I was fine. I slept a lot the last two days. I was ready to play.

“As a team, we just didn’t have it at the start of the game. Like we always do, we made it a game down the stretch. We just couldn’t finish.”

Portland drew to within 71-63 with a 7-0 run midway through the third quarter. The Suns entered the fourth period with an 84-73 advantage.

Phoenix increased the margin to 90-74, but the Blazers scored six points in a row to get to within 90-80 with 8:12 left.

Lillard’s 3-pointer cut the Phoenix lead to 96-92 with 3:55 to go, and it was still 100-95 when Portland’s Nicolas Batum bombed in another trey with 2:24 remaining.

Blazer reserve Nolan Smith — who played the entire fourth quarter in the absence of injured Wesley Matthews — made 1 of 2 at the foul line to cut the difference to 100-96 with 1:28 left.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s two foul shots cut the Suns’ edge to 100-98 with 20.5 seconds to go before Dragic put the win on ice with a pair at the line with 13.5 ticks left.

Dragic was magic early, handing out 10 assists in the first quarter alone. He was funny — perhaps inadvertently — afterward, getting off the quip of the night.

“I would like to thank all my teammates,” Dragic said straight-faced. “They were hitting shots.”

The Blazers understand that large early deficits are not condusive to winning.

“We missed a lot of good shots, and then we give up 63 in the first half,” said Batum, who finished with 15 points, five rebounds and five assists but made only 5 of 14 from the field. “That’s on us. We can’t wait until we’re down 20 before we start playing.”

After going 1-5 on its recent road trip, including a 99-63 humilation at New Orleans to close the junket, the Blazers looked to its post-All-Star Game schedule — five of six at home — and envisioned making up some ground in the playoff race.

“The window of opportunity is closing on us,” Lillard said. “That road trip was big for us. Games at home become more important. To drop this one, it hurt.”

NOTES: Phoenix’s scored the most points in the first quarter and in the first half of any Portland opponent all season. ... Portland shot .413 from the field and .300 from 3-point range. ... Hickson is fourth in the NBA in double-doubles with 28th. The Portland center was 10 for 14 from the field and has shot 50 percent or better in a franchise-record 17 straight games. ... Aldridge, coming off his second straight All-Star Game appearance, scored 23 points and had five rebounds in 40 minutes. He was 7 for 16 from the field and 9 for 9 from the line. ... Matthews (ankle) missed his eighth game of the year. “(Monday) Wes was optimistic he’d be able to go, but it just wasn’t there,” Stotts said. “Hopefully he’ll be ready for the Lakers.” How much did the Blazers miss their starting shooting guard? “Wes is really important to our team,” Stotts said. “He competes. I don’t want to use that as an excuse. We’ve showed we can still compete without him. If he’s not in there, everybody has to step up a little bit.”

Smith had four rebounds and played some good defense but was 0 for 4 and scored one point in his 17 minutes. ... Dragic had 16 assists through three quarters. His previous career high for a game was 14. ... Jermaine O’Neal had another big game against his former team, collecting nine points and 13 rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench. Phoenix centers Marcin Gortat and O’Neil are a combined 41 for 58 shooting in three games against Portland this season. ... Phoenix’s bench outscored its Portland counterparts 40-7. ... The Suns snapped a seven-game losing streak in Portland. It was their first win there since March 2008. ... Phoenix owned the backboards 51-37.