ATLANTA — What a difference an All-Star makes.
Trail Blazers starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge returned to the lineup, putting up 25 points and 16 rebounds in 32 minutes to lift the Trail Blazers to a 100-85 victory versus the Atlanta Hawks at Phillips Arena.
“Very important, just for our mental psyche, our confidence, everything,” said Aldridge of the win. “The standing with guys winning — Phoenix won, Dallas is back there — so I think it was overall just good for us.”
With the win, Portland moves to 46-27 on the season and 20-18 on the road while ending a three-game losing streak.
“He looked very good,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We planned on playing him 32 minutes, I thought he made the most of the minutes he had. He rebounded the ball extremely well, got rebounds in a crowd, I like the way he took the ball to the paint. He competed inside, he didn’t look like he shied away from any of the contact, stroke looked good. Defensively, he was very locked into our gameplan.”
Aldridge had missed Portland’s last seven game with a lower back contusion, and though his return to the court wasn’t confirmed until Thursday morning’s shootaround, he looked as though he suffered no ill effects from the fall he took on March 12 versus the Spurs in San Antonio.
“The shots (to his back) didn’t bother me,” said Aldridge. “I got tight from going up and down. I think that’s definitely the most work I’ve done in two weeks, but we did things on the sideline to open it back up.”
With Aldridge back in the rotation, the Trail Blazers looked like a much more fluid team on both sides of the ball. The 6-11 forward shot an airball on his first attempt in nearly two weeks, but followed that up with a vicious block on Atlanta’s Elton Brand, a made 17-footer of a Nicolas Batum pass and got to the line in his first five minutes.
“I wasn’t winded, I was surprised,” said Aldridge. “They actually gave me time to workout and go up and down and do things like that. I thought that was big for my cardio tonight. I didn’t even get tired, really.”
Aldridge would go on to put up eight points, fives rebounds, a steal and a block in eight first-quarter minutes to help the Trail Blazers take a 22-16 lead into the second.
The Trail Blazers would follow up a quality first quarter with arguably their best offensive quarter of the road trip thus far in the second. Atlanta’s defense, playing shorthanded without Kyle Korver and Pero Antic, had to pick their poison after Aldridge’s hot start, which gave both Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard space they had not been afforded in recent games. Lopez finished the second with seven points and Lillard went 3 of 4 from the field and 2 of 2 from three for eight second-quarter points.
“There’s a lot of security in being able to throw (Aldridge) the ball in the block,” said Stotts. “The way were were playing before (without Aldridge) there was a lot of movement, it’s very fatiguing to constantly be driving and trying to push the pace. In pick and rolls he creates a problem so defenses have to make a decision how they want to guard the pick and roll with him and Mo or him and Dame or him and Nic. He gives us a lot of security at the offensive end.”
Portland shot 65 percent from the field in the second to outscore Atlanta by 10 in the quarter to take a 53-37 lead into the intermission.
But when you’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak, nothing comes easy for 48 minutes. The Hawks weren’t able to make up much ground in the third quarter, but managed to make a push early in the fourth to apply pressure to a team struggling to hold position in the Western Conference playoff race. Atlanta went on a 12-4 run, with 10 of those points coming from Lou Williams, to cut Portland’s lead to six with 8:10 to play in regulation. You could almost feel the nervousness back in Portland, as the Trail Blazers have struggled in the second half of the season to finish close games.
But rather than letting another game slip away, Portland would finish the game on an 18-9 run to pull away for a 15-point victory. Aldridge would score seven of those points late, including an and-1 finish off a Wesley Matthews dish with just under six minutes to play that put Portland up 11.
“I’m just trying to make it easier on everybody else,” said Aldridge. “I felt like we all made the right plays tonight. (Matthews) gave me a really good pass on that one. I tried to go to the basket because I had one play like that previously, I settled for the jumpshot. So that time I was trying to go to the basket, went up strong. I think just me being out there, trying to make reads, it helps everybody else make reads off of me.”
With Aldridge putting pressure on Atlanta’s defense, Lillard was freed up to take care of business on the perimeter. The second-year guard out of Weber State went 7 of 15 from the field and 4 of 9 from three to finish with 21 points while adding six rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.
“We’re a whole different team with (Aldridge),” said Lillard. “He’s our best player. He brings balance to our team. We had an inside presence and we were able to play inside-out like we have been all year. He played well to have sat out for so long. I think, with him out there, we just got more quality shots.”
Aside from Lopez, Aldridge’s return also had a positive effect on Thomas Robinson, who played alongside Aldridge for much of the game and responded with 10 points on 4 of 4 shooting in just under 19 minutes.
“Because of LA’s minutes (restriction) I had to tweak the rotation, but I liked playing Thomas and LA together,” said Stotts. “I thought that worked well for us. Thomas, I thought, played a good energy game, made some good plays at both ends of the court. That’s what we need from him.”
Stotts also got an efficient game from backup point guard Mo Williams. Despite playing through a minor knee injury, Williams shot 3 of 6 from the field for eight points while dishing out a game-high 11 assists, with a number of those coming off alley-oops, in 25 minutes.
“I thought Mo, when he came into the game, he found a lot of things offensive,” said Stotts. “Found Robin on some rolls, pushed the pace, made his shots. He played a very good game, but when he came in, it seemed like the game changed a little bit.”
With the victory, Portland is now a game ahead of the Warriors for the fifth seed in the West and three games up on the Dallas Mavericks, who sit in ninth after losing Thursday night to the Clippers.
“The race is getting tight and we’ve got nine games left,” said Lillard. “We just need to finish out nine games strong and that’s all we need to focus on. Having a win, it gives us momentum to try to go get another one tomorrow. It’s refreshing because we had kind of … it was just losing. That energy, we was off a little bit just from losing games and other teams winning, the season coming down to an end. Having a win, I think that brings up our energy. It helps us mentally.”
With that boost of energy, the Trail Blazers head northwest to wrap up a five-game trip with against the Bulls in Chicago. Tipoff is scheduled for Friday at 5 PM.
It’s well known that Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has many interests. While practicing and playing basketball is how he spends the vast majority of his time, the 6-3 guard out of Weber State is an aspiring rapper, a pitchman for the likes of adidas, JBL and Spalding and an ambassador for Special Olympics. And now, he can add “cartoon character” to his list of roles, as he, along with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Indiana’s Paul George voiced characters for an upcoming episode of “We Bare Bears” on Cartoon Network…
Some additional information from the folks at Cartoon Network…
… A special episode of the Cartoon Network Original Series We Bare Bears, featuring Paul George, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, premiering Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. (ET/PT). The episode, “Charlie Ball,” features characters voiced by the players. The “All-Star” episodes of Teen Titans Go! and We Bare Bears will replay on Cartoon Network throughout NBA All-Star weekend.
Cartoon Network continues its NBA All-Star 2016 celebration with special segments integrated into some of its leading television shows beginning on Thursday, Feb. 11. Through its popular CN Sayin’ app, Cartoon Network will provide kids with an opportunity to send questions via video submissions to their favorite NBA players. Select questions and responses will then be featured within Cartoon Network’s on-air integrations throughout NBA All-Star.
Sports-themed episodes of Cartoon Network series will be available on VOD and TVE. Highlights from the All-Star special episodes of We Bare Bears and Teen Titans Go! will be on Cartoon Network’s YouTube Channel, the Cartoon Network app, CartoonNetwork.com, as well as VOD.
Not being named to the 2016 All-Star Game was certainly disappointing, but being immortalized in an All-Star themed cartoon seems like a decent consolation prize.
PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers saw both a seven-game homestand and a five-game winning streak come to an end with a 110-103 loss to the Toronto Raptors in front of a sellout crowd of 19,393 Thursday night at the Moda Center. What’s more, the win was Toronto’s first in Portland since the 2006-2007 season, ending Portland’s seven-game home winning streak versus the NBA’s lone Canadian squad.
“Toronto is a good team, I think that’s pretty obvious,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “They’re a very good team and there’s a reason why they’re the second-best team or have the second-best record in the East. I thought we were close — obviously the first quarter getting behind (14) — but they shot the ball extremely well.”
With the loss, the Trail Blazers fall short of getting back to .500 for the first time since the second week of November. Portland is now 24-26 overall and 15-11 at home this season. The win moves the Raptors to 34-16 and is their 13th victory in their last 14 games.
While it wasn’t a wire-to-wire victory for the road team, the Trail Blazers’ lone lead came after less than a minute had elapsed in the first quarter. The Raptors would take a 14-point lead by the end of the quarter.
“Our first quarter defense wasn’t even close to being good enough, especially against a playoff team, a really good team like them” said Damian Lillard. “They shot the ball really well and we made a few mistakes that allowed them to get themselves going and start believing. You have to take your hat off to them, they;re a really good team and they brought a real challenge to us. Hopefully the next time we play them we’ll come out and have a better start.”
In a trend that would continue for the majority of the night, every time the Trail Blazers would succeed in cutting into the Raptors’ lead, Toronto, usually led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, were always able answer with a few timely baskets or defensive play to keep Portland at bay. Portland had a chance to cut Toronto’s lead to three with 35 seconds to play after a Lillard steal, but CJ McCollum couldn’t get the midrange shot on the ensuing fastbreak to fall.
“It’s a shot I hit nine out of 10, easily,” said McCollum. “Left it a little short. Can’t happen. End of the game, that’s a big possession, open shot, open look. I hit that then it’s a three-point game, 36 second left, don’t need to foul, we can play it out. It’s a good learning experience.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who scored just six points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half before finishing with 27 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field and 9-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. His first three-pointer, which didn’t come until the fourth quarter, made him just the third player in NBA history to make at least 125 three-pointers in each of his first four season. Lillard also added 11 assists for his 12th double-double of the season.
McCollum went 8-of-18 from the field and 4-of-6 from three to finish with 21 points, six rebounds and two assists. Allen Crabbe scored 17 points off the bench and Gerald Henderson added 10 to round out Portland’s double-digit scorers. Henderson’s ninth point Thursday night gave him 6,000 points for his career.
Portland forward Maurice Harkless started Thursday’s game in place of Noah Vonleh, who sat out with a sprained left ankle, and finished with two points, two points, two blocks and a steal in 16 minutes.
Toronto’s starting backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan combined for 59 points on 21-of-44 shooting. Jonas Valanciunas put up a double-double of 14 points, 11 rebounds. Portland native Terrence Ross and Cory Joseph each scored 12 points off the bench.
Next up, the Trail Blazers hit the road for the first time in nearly three weeks to take on the Rockets in Houston. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 pm.
The NBA announced the participants Saturday night events at the 2016 All-Star Weekend in Toronto on TNT Thursday night, with Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum being one of the eight players selected to compete in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge.
Here’s what McCollum had to say about being selected to participate in the Skills Challenge, his chances of winning the event, not being “cool,” the addition of power forwards and centers and what else he’ll be up to in Toronto…
Your thoughts on being invited to participate in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. You had said you wanted to compete in at least one of the events at All-Star, sounds like someone was listening.
CJ McCollum: “I would have liked to be in the Three-Point Contest too, but I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Skills Challenge. I look forward to trying to bring home another winning trophy like Dame did.”
When did you find out you were selected?
CJ McCollum: “A couple of weeks ago.”
Damian won it twice, I assume he’ll probably give you some pointers. But that’s got to be some pressure too considering he’s going to rib you if you won’t win it.
CJ McCollum: “Nah, no pressure. This is all in good fun, it’s a competitive environment, the juices will be flowing. I’ll definitely get some pointers from him, get a little bit of practice in next week.”
What do you feel like you bring to the Skills Challenge that will put you in a good position to win it?
CJ McCollum: “I’m gonna go hard and try to win. I ain’t going to be cool like a lot of those other guys. Hopefully they continue to try to be cool; I’ll go hard. Get in and out of cuts, try to make crisp passes, knock down the shot and keep it moving.”
You mentioned practice. You going to wait until you get in Toronto or put in some time before that?
CJ McCollum: “I’ll probably practice here next week, get a couple runs in.”
What do you think about the field? They’re letting bigs in this year.
CJ McCollum: “Yeah, I see we got a lot of big men in there. They’re shooting threes now days, they’re becoming more well-rounded. Glad to see them competing in this as well and hopefully a guard brings home the championship, not a big.”
I think a lot of people are picking last year’s winner, Patrick Beverley, or Isaiah Thomas as the favorites. How do you like your chances?
CJ McCollum: “I like my chances. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good chance at winning. Obviously it’s about getting the pass in there, making sure you make the jumpshot and everything else should be easy.”
A lot of guys who come up playing basketball participate in three-point or dunk contests, but have you ever done anything similar to the Skills Challenge?
CJ McCollum: “No, I’ve done three-point competitions before, but never a skills setting like this.”
You mentioned you were planning on going to All-Star Weekend even if you weren’t selected to compete in an event, so what else do you have scheduled for Toronto?
CJ McCollum: “I’ll be at the Players Association meeting on Friday. I have a couple of events with my sponsors, I think I’ll have something with Mountain Dew, a couple NBA Cares events and then I also sit on a panel. And I think I might do a segment for Inside Stuff while I’m there, maybe a community service event as well. But I don’t have my full schedule yet.”