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Lillard leads Portland team that is on a roll in push to make NBA playoffs

The Trail Blazers are a much different team than when the Houston Rockets last came to town.

On Nov. 27, the Rockets dismantled Portland at Moda Center, winning 130-114.

But on Thursday, two days after the Blazers' most important win of the season (against Denver), it was crucial not to have a letdown. And, even after a shaky fourth quarter, the Blazers responded to the challenge.

Damian Lillard poured in a game-high 31 points on 10-for-18 shooting, and Jusuf Nurkic added 19 points to go along with a game-best 11 rebounds as the Blazers (37-38) inched closer to a playoff spot with a 117-107 win over Houston (51-24) at Moda.TRAIL BLAZERS GAME STORY

"I liked the way we stayed engaged defensively throughout," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We were locked into tendencies and pick-and-roll coverage and not helping too much on 3-point shooters, and limiting transition, so a lot of the keys we were looking for in pregame, we stayed pretty attentive to those."

Coming off a career night against Denver, Nurkic wasn't as sharp, going 7 of 16 from the field. But his rebounding and interior presence on defense was big for Portland.

Houston coach Mike D'Antoni noted how the Blazers look different now.

"I think they're playing better," he said. "Nurkic has helped them obviously. They have shored up their (defense) a lot. They have always been an explosive offensive team. They are a lot better. They're playing really well. Obviously Nurkic had a chip on his shoulder coming over here to play because he was sitting (on the bench) in Denver for a long time. He's is a very talented player. He has a new lease on life."

The Rockets averaged 128 points and shot better than 45 percent from behind the arc in their two previous games against the Blazers this season. Thursday night, however, was a different story.

The Rockets were 8 for 34 from behind the arc (23.5 percent), and despite having 18 assists, they turned the ball over 18 times.

Portland, on the other hand, had 24 assists and just 12 turnovers. The Blazers also were 13 of 33 (39.4 percent) from 3-point range.

"We're playing with a great sense of urgency. It feels like we're playing like the team that we expected ourselves to be from the beginning of the season," Lillard said. "It's frustrating because we wish we could have been playing this brand of basketball months ago, and we wouldn't even be in the position that we're in, but I feel like it couldn't have come at a greater time."

James Harden had yet another 30-point game for Houston, but the Blazers defended him effectively for the majority of the evening. Harden was just 11 of 30 and only 2 of 13 from 3-point distance.

"Tonight, I took a couple of bad shots, and I turned the basketball over a couple times," Harden said. "As a team, we did a pretty good job. Especially fighting back, giving ourselves a chance. But personally, myself, I have to do a better job of getting better shots and getting shots down the stretch. I'll take that one to the gym."

Blazers forward Moe Harkless, talking about the key to defending Harden, said it was "just making it tough for him, trying to not let him get to the free-throw line as much, and I think we did a good job tonight. It was a collective effort. I guarded him, (Allen Crabbe) guarded him, (Evan Turner) guarded him and I think we did a pretty good job together."

Harkless also had a huge impact on the other end of the floor, scoring 11 points in the first quarter, including a dunk over Trevor Ariza in transition.

Crabbe was the go-to-guy in the second period, knocking down three straight treys to help give the Blazers the 65-56 halftime lead.

"(Crabbe) was on a roll in the first half," Stotts said. "Again, when you have a win like this you can point to a lot of guys but I thought AC's offense certainly in the first half really kind of kicked us in gear."

After a 14-point performance in the first half, Lillard kicked it up a notch in the third quarter, pouring in 12 points and hitting five of the seven shots he attempted.

Entering the fourth quarter, Portland was 36 of 69 from the field (52.1 percent) and 13 of 24 from distance. However, the Blazers went stone cold in the final period.

During an eight-minute stretch, the Blazers missed 12 of 13 field-goal attempts, including nine consecutive misses from beyond the arc.

"The fourth quarter, we really struggled to score the ball. We got a lot of good looks, but they didn't drop. I thought we stayed locked in defensively with what we needed to do until the shots came around," Stotts said.

The poor shooting by the Blazers allowed Houston to tie the game at 105-105 with under three minutes remaining.

However, Portland had another offensive spark left. Nurkic got a hoop deep in the paint to give Portland a 107-105 lead. Lillard and CJ McCollum each hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead to six.

Crabbe put the nail in the coffin when he picked Harden's pocket at the top of the key and turned it into a layup at the other end. The Blazers ended the game on a 12-2 run to seal the victory.

"The biggest thing for us is just being consistent, and I feel like we have done a good job with that," Crabbe said.

The Blazers are now 1 1/2 games ahead of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, and with seven games remaining, Portland really likes its position.

"We're feeling good. We're rolling," Harkless said. "We've been playing some really good basketball. We've just got to continue to work, continue to keep it up, and hopefully it's momentum and we go into the playoffs with it."

NOTES: Portland will take on the Phoenix Suns (22-54) at home at 7 p.m. Saturday, riding a season-high five-game win streak. The Blazers lead the four-game season series 2-1. … Denver continues its five-game trip by playing Charlotte (34-41) on Friday. … The last time Portland met the Suns, Lillard scored 39 points and McCollum dropped in 26 as the Blazers won 110-101. … Lillard has scored over 30-plus points in his last two games against the Suns. McCollum has averaged 27.7 points. on 53.6 percent shooting … Stotts was asked before Thursday's game if the emotional victory on Tuesday would affect his team's play against Houston: "We haven't accomplished anything yet. We are really glad that we beat Denver, but I don't think there will be a chance of an emotional letdown because we haven't accomplished anything. We haven't accomplished our goal yet."

Houston broke Golden State's single-season record of 3s made in a season in the loss ... Houston's Ryan Anderson is out for the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury, and Montrezl Harrell missed the game due to the birth of his child. … Lillard is the first player in Blazers history to score 30-plus points eight times in a calendar month. Lillard also scored 465 points in March, the most ever by a Blazer in that (the old mark of 438 was set by Clyde Drexler in 1989). … Nurkic recorded a double-double for the fifth time in his last seven games. Lillard, who had a game-high 11 assists on Thursday, recored his 11th double-double of the season. … Crabbe scored in double-digits off the bench for the 35th time this season, 11th most among NBA reserves. Crabbe's steal from Harden late in the fourth quarter gave him a career-high four steals. … After a 39-point performance against Denver on Tuesday, McCollum was 4 for 15 with 12 points against Houston.

Lillard, talking about the physicality in the fourth quarter: "I mean, with us and (Houston's) an elite team this season and it's the NBA so you should expect those kind of games, especially a team that they can run off points. They shoot the ball well, they draw a lot of fouls, they space the floor, and we expected to battle with guys like Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza, you know they're going to get in the mix, they're going to play physical on the defensive end, they're going to set screens. You know how they're going to play. They play that kind of game down the stretch and it got close, they tied the game up, but we showed great poise and still pulled it out."

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