PORTLAND — The Trail Blazers took the floor intent on outplaying, outshining, and utterly outclassing the Lakers.
All with one goal in mind — to avoid them.
True, no Blazer will admit that a postseason matchup with Los Angeles is an unfavorable one, but they don’t have to when the potential foe is the two-time defending NBA champion.
However, after beating the Lakers 93-86 Friday, Portland recaptured the ever-so-tenuous sixth spot in the Western Conference and would meet Dallas if the postseason started today.
Then again, considering the Blazers were up by 24 points in the third quarter, maybe tangling with the purple and gold wouldn’t be so terrible after all.
“Why not?” Blazers forward Nicolas Batum responded when asked about a first-round matchup with the Lakers.
Well, you could answer that question by citing L.A.’s size or experience or the fact that it has Kobe Bryant under contract. But everything that typically makes the Lakers great temporarily went into hiding Friday.
Despite 18 first-half points from Bryant, Portland began the second half leading 53-47. Less than seven minutes later, they were up 74-50.
Mixing in alley-oops and picturesque bounce passes from half court, Andre Miller tallied 13 assists in what may have been his most precise passing performance of the year. LaMarcus Aldridge was often the beneficiary of his point guard’s prowess, scoring a team-high 24 points on 10 of 19 shooting.
And then there was Gerald Wallace — who did just about everything else.
“His name is no longer Gerald Wallace,” Aldridge said after the game. “He is now ‘M-V-P.’ ”
Before the Blazers acquired Wallace from the Bobcats in late February, they were 8-19 against playoff-bound teams. Since the trade, they’re 10-5.
Friday, the forward scored 19 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out seven assists, but his definitive moment can’t be found in the box score.
After Ron Artest drew a foul late in the fourth quarter, he began jawing at Wallace underneath Portland’s basket. Wallace got right back and his face and showed no signs of intimidation. Multiple Blazers intervened, and both Artest and Wallace were slapped with technical fouls.
Shortly after, the Rose Garden crowd began chanting “Ger-ald Wall-ace!”
“It’s a physical ball game, that was just a point that needed to be made,” Wallace said. “I wasn’t going to back down.”
Nate McMillan asked who would win in a cage match between Wallace and Artest.
“That would be a good one,” he said. “Because I don’t expect either guy to back down.”
The Blazers (47-33) picked up the win despite playing without Marcus Camby (neck strain) for the second straight game. They also lost Nicolas Batum briefly to a right ankle sprain at the start of the third quarter, but the Frenchman did return.
One question going around the Blazers locker room after the game was whether L.A. gave them their best shot. Given that the Mavericks are now just a game behind them for the third spot, and that they’re now tied with Boston and Miami record-wise, the Lakers (55-24) had no reason to give Friday night’s game away.
Still, something didn’t seem right in the first quarter, and something seemed terribly wrong in the third. Even so, the Blazers made no excuses for their opponents.
“They wanted to win. They had Gasol, they had Kobe, they had Artest, and they had they’re guys in there in the fourth quarter,” said Wesley Matthews, who scored 18 points of his own Friday. “Whether it was their A game, B game, or C game, we got the victory.”
Bryant, meanwhile, displayed his A game in the first half but didn’t earn a passing grade in the second. Over the final 24 minutes, he scored six points on 3 of 12 shooting, only making noise when he was jawing at the referees. He still finished with a team-high 24 points, but hardly made the same imprint as he has in previous games vs. Portland this year.
Batum added 13 points for Portland in 26 minutes. His temporary absence allowed Brandon Roy to play 29 minutes, his most since Dec. 15.
Gasol had just eight points on 4 of 14 shooting for the Lakers. Artest added 14 points while Lamar Odom pitched in 13.