The Portland Trail Blazers moved to 41-18 on the season and 23-7 at home with a 102-96 victory versus the Denver Nuggets Saturday night at the Moda Center. The win was Portland’s fifth-straight and secured a season-series sweep versus Denver for the first time since the 1998-99 season.
“That was a solid win for us,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We did a lot of good things. I felt like we were in control of the game for the most part.”
The victory helped the Trail Blazers keep pace in the Western Conference standings where they currently sit third, three games back from Oklahoma City for the top spot and just a game and a half behind the Spurs for second.
The Trail Blazers were lead by Robin Lopez, who finished with a game-high 18 points and nine rebounds in 32 minutes. It was the first time this season Lopez has led the Trail Blazers in scoring. Saturday night’s game was also the first time Trail Blazers game this season in which no player scored on either team scored as least 20 points.
Nicolas Batum flirted for much of the night with a triple-double before coming up short with nine points, six assists and a career-high 16 rebounds.
“Just tried to go get it,” said Batum of his performance on the boards. “Especially after what happened last game (versus the Nuggets) when they got 27 offensive rebounds. So I tried to, as a guard, play big inside.”
The entirety of Portland’s roster, which out-rebounded Denver 43-30 Saturday might, seemed to put an extra emphasis on rebounding after being beaten 64-41 on the boards in their 100-95 victory in Denver on Feb. 25.
“After the game in Denver, that got our attention,” said Stotts. “It was a focus. For us to get 43 defensive rebounds and for them to get 10 offensive, it was a pretty impressive rebounding night.”
The Trail Blazers got closer to once again having a completely healthy roster Saturday night, with both LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard returning to game action for the first time in over two weeks.
Aldridge played for the first time since the All-Star break after being sidelined with a left groin strain and resumed his role as Portland’s starting power forward. Playing for the first time since Portland’s 122-117 loss
to the Clippers in Los Angeles on Feb, 12, Aldridge turned in a 16-point, seven-rebound, three-assist performance in 30 minutes.
“My timing was a little off but it felt good to be back out there playing with the guys,” said Aldridge. “I felt good, a little tired, but for the most part my body felt good and my conditioning felt good.”
With the Trail Blazers riding a four-game winning streak without Aldridge, some wondered if it would take time for the team to re-acclimate to playing alongside their three-time All-Star. That turn out not be the case, with Aldridge finishing the game +13.
“It seemed pretty seamless,” said Stotts of Aldridge’s returning to the starting lineup. “I thought it looked good. We kept his minutes at 30 and I don’t know what, going forward, the plan is.”
And for his part, Aldridge looked pain-free and in shape despite not seeing game action in 16 days. Aldridge did play fewer minutes than usual as a precaution, which luckily wasn’t an issue with Portland leading the game for all but four minutes in the first quarter.
Saturday night’s game also saw the return of Meyers Leonard, who has been out the last five games after suffering a left ankle sprain in the team’s first practice after the All-Star break.
“I thought he played well,” said Stotts. “For the time that he’s missed, and he was not playing a lot at the time (he was injured) anyway. I thought he played a good game. He was physical inside. He got some fouls that kind of ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I thought, for his first game back he played well.”
Leonard, who had been showing incremental improvement before the injury, looked good in his return to the court. He finished numerous dunks in transition and rebounded well against an undersized Nuggets front court to finish with eight points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.
“I felt pretty good out there,” said Leonard. “Went for a ball fake early on JJ (Hickson) then let him get a deep catch on me, but other than that, I felt pretty good. I had a couple defensive plays where I had the verticality, had a couple finishes in transition, missed a jumper I would have liked to make and then the reverse layup, I was not to happy with myself on missing. But it’s part of the game. I’m pretty rusty. As far as actual game play, I hadn’t played really much up until the Clipper game and then came back from All-Star break, got hurt. So it’s been a while, just have to take advantage of my minutes.”
it is unknown how long Thomas Robinson (sprained left patella tendon) will be out and Joel Freeland (right MCL sprain) isn’t expected to return for at least a month, so Leonard has a good shot at playing consistent, extended minutes as his fellow big men rehab.
“They just want me to play as hard as I can,” said Leonard of what he’s being told by his coaches. “That’s one thing I can always control. Everybody from the coaches through the players know that I can make jumpshots and finish around the rim and everything like that, but just have to continue to work on my defense as well. That’s a big part of what I want to become. It’s going to take time. It’s not easy. That’s my main focus is playing as hard as I can and continuing to try to be the best defender I can be.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers host the Lakers at the Moda Center on Monday. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 PM.