Aldridge, Batum lead Blazers to 'huge' victory
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Blazer forward LaMarcus Aldridge tips away a shot attempt by Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.

Seldom has an NBA team gone from so hot to so cold from one half to another.

Oklahoma City started out as if it were going to run the Trail Blazers out of the Rose Garden Friday night.

The Thunder made their first six shots from the field and fired at a .564 clip in running up a 59-53 halftime lead.

Early in the third quarter - with Oklahoma City on top 62-55 - the well ran dry.

Suddenly, the Thunder were a construction crew, laying brick after brick the rest of the way as Portland claimed a 98-91 victory.

'You're going to have nights like that,' said OKC's Kevin Durant, who had 25 points and 11 rebounds but missed 12 straight shots through the middle portion of the game. 'We have to stay positive and let this one go.'

It was only the second loss in the last 13 games for the Thunder (50-25), whose magic number is five (OKC wins, Denver losses) to claim their first Northwest Division championship.

Portland (44-32) moved into sixth place in the Western Conference, a game ahead of New Orleans and Memphis (both 43-33). The Grizzlies beat the Hornets 93-81 Friday night.

'A huge win for us,' said Portland's Nicolas Batum, who collected 19 points and six rebounds in his first game as a reserve since Dec. 15.

The win prevented a season sweep for Oklahoma City, which had won the first three games of the series.

'No team wants to get swept in a division,' said Portland point guard Andre Miller, who scored nine of his 13 points in the fourth quarter. 'And the playoff race is still close.'

Portland coach Nate McMillan pointed to improved defense as a key to his team's second-half surge, and the Blazer defenders did a better job than they'd done the first half. But the Thunder were their own worst enemy in scoring 11 points in the third quarter, then 21 in the fourth period. They made 10 of 39 shots (.256) in the second half, and few of them were at the basket.

The Blazers 'were playing good defense - challenging us, making us take tough shots - but we were missing the easy ones when we did get them,' Oklahoma City coach Scotty Brooks said. 'We got 3-point-happy. We were taking too many 3s ... we settled for too many outside shots tonight.'

After going 6 for 10 from the field and scoring 16 points in the first half, Durant missed his first 10 shots of the second half - most of them from the perimeter and seven from 3-point range. When he finally made a shot again on a drive with 1:31 remaining, Portland led 92-85.

'I got, like, five wide-open 3s,' said Durant, who finished 9 for 24 from the field. 'They felt great leaving my hand, and then ... boing, off the rim. All I could do was laugh at it.'

The Blazers, meanwhile, were getting most of their offense from two sources - LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 18 of his game-high 32 points in the first half, and Batum, who scored 14 of his points to keep them within reach at intermission after trailing by as much as 12 in the first quarter.

Aldridge scored both inside and outside against OKC center Kendrick Perkins, who was limited to 23 minutes while accumulating five fouls, four points and seven rebounds.

'I told myself I was going to try to get him in foul trouble,' said Aldridge, who was 14 for 26 from the field and had eight rebounds in his 41 minutes. 'He was being overly physical. If I gave him into it and didn't try to force the issue, he'd have gotten away with it.'

McMillan shook up his lineup, inserting Marcus Camby at center and sliding Aldridge from center to power forward and Gerald Wallace from power forward to small forward.

That left Batum coming off the bench for the first time in 3 1/2 months. He didn't skip a beat, making 8 of 14 shots from the field and playing excellent defense during his time on Durant.

'I told him, 'We're going to need you, whether you're in that starting lineup or not,' " said McMillan, who had Batum on the floor for 34 minutes, including the last 17 of the game. 'He looked loose and played a good game tonight.'

'I'm not going to worry about starting or coming off the bench,' Batum said. 'My goal is more to finish the game, like tonight. Be aggressive on offense and defense and don't think about starting or not.'

Portland was outstanding at the foul line (25 for 27, .926) and committed a season-low five turnovers to 17 for the visitors. Oklahoma City's only advantage was on the boards (48-35, including 12-2 in the first quarter).

'At least we didn't give up all three - free throws, rebounds and turnovers,' Miller said. 'The main thing was not turning the ball over.'

With six games remaining, Portland could finish as high as fifth in the West, but is likely to wind up sixth, seventh or eighth. That's why Friday's win was big.

'We needed it, just because of the standings,' Aldridge said. 'We have to try to win every game the rest of the way.'

NOTES: Portland's next action is Sunday at home against Dallas. ... The Blazers' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is two combined wins or Houston losses. ... They have won seven in a row at the Rose Garden and are 27-10 at home and 17-22 on the road. ... Miller was 9 for 10 from the foul line and and dished out seven assists, giving him 6,995 for his career. With five Sunday he would become the 14th player in NBA history to get to 7,000. ... It was the 12th time Aldridge has scored 30 or more points this season. ... Aldridge was one of six divisional winners designated as candidates for the 2010-11 NBA Sportsmanship Award as chosen by a four-member panel of former players. The NBA will announce the winner after the regular season. ... Miller (2 for 9), Wesley Matthews (2 for 9) and Gerald Wallace (4 for 11) all had poor shooting performances for Portland. ... Camby provided two points, five rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes. In his 17 games since returning from Jan. 17 knee surgery, the veteran center has made 16 of 56 shots from the field (.348) and 5 of 12 shots from the line (.417) while averaging 2.2 points and 8.8 rebounds. ... Russell Westbrook made only 5 of 15 shots but totaled 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists for the Thunder.

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