TUALATIN — The Portland Trail Blazers returned from a two-game mini road trip with a pair of wins and a learning lesson.
“The rest of the way is not going to be easy, no matter who you’re playing,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts cautioned following practice Monday.
While Portland improved to 34-26 on the season, thanks to a dominant defensive effort against the Utah Jazz Friday followed by a late dose of “Lillard Time” against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, the two-game swing was a reminder that wins aren’t a given regardless of the opponent as the playoff race ramps up.
“It’s easy to get up for Utah, Oklahoma City or Minnesota,” said Stotts, “but the reality is that it’s not going to be easy. We have to assume that every game is going to be a tough game and however it plays out is going to be tough.”
DAME DOES IT
Damian Lillard added yet another game-winner to his resume over the weekend, while continuing his prolific scoring streak straight into the Trail Blazers record books.
As he’s done each of the last two seasons, Portland’s All-Star guard is taking it upon himself to lead the Blazers on a post-All-Star push toward the playoffs.
“I think it’s just my mentality,” Lillard said Monday of his recent play. “Whatever I gotta do to get the team where we need to be, to continue to move up in the West and make our playoff run, I’m gonna do whatever I need to do.”
Lillard has topped 30 points five times in February, which includes three games of 40 or more and the fourth 50-point performance of his career, all while Portland has won five out of six games and moved into fifth place in the tight Western Conference standings.
Along with Anthony Davis (34.0) and James Harden (31.0), Lillard (32.0) is one of just three players in the West averaging better than 30 points in the month of February.
“It’s just, what are you willing to do to make sure this team gets done what we need to get done?” Lillard said. “My mentality every game is — even if it’s not popular, even if it’s ugly — whatever I gotta do to make sure our team gets it done I’m willing to do that. Even if I gotta be the bad guy … whatever I gotta do that’s what I’m gonna do.”
While Portland’s last three games have all provided the same outcome, each has taken a different path to victory.
The Blazers led big at home early against the Golden State Warriors, warding off a late comeback attempt by the defending champs for a 123-117 win prior to the All-Star break.
In Utah, Portland put the clamps down defensively over the final three quarters to run away with a 100-81 win over the Jazz.
While in Phoenix, the Blazers battled back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit as Lillard’s latest 0.9 game-winner gave Portland the 106-104 win.
Whether it be a close game against a top team in the West, blowing out a division rival by double digits or battling back late against a conference cellar dweller, the Blazers have provided proof of late-game improvement to string together three straight wins.
“I think just our urgency, our focus and the desire has been different,” Lillard said. “We’ve just been on the same page with the details, the small stuff we need to do to be able to close out games and pull out wins.”