By Candace Buckner
Columbian staff writer
PORTLAND — Damian Lillard has this unflappable way about him.
His long stare, a study in still life.
His game grown from a lily pad.
While the Trail Blazers played the last NBA game on the Thursday night slate, the eyes of the basketball world locked in on Portland’s rookie. And Lillard, cool to the very end even while being interviewed under the TNT camera floodlight, didn’t disappoint.
Sparked by Lillard’s career night, the Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 98-90, as witnessed by 19,118 fans inside the Rose Garden.
While LaMarcus Aldridge outscored his counterpart, Tim Duncan, 22 to 16 and J.J. Hickson played the dozens, earning his 12th double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, Lillard had his best night scoring with 29 points on 11-of-22 shooting.
Lillard also added seven rebounds and six assists and for the fourth time in his career produced at least 20, 5 and 5. No other rookie in league history has accomplished that feat.
“I’ve played better games,” Lillard would later say.
But rarely have the Blazers played better.
During the last meeting with the Spurs on Nov. 10, the fourth quarter was the Achilles’ heel as the Blazers allowed 39 points. However on Thursday, the Blazers made the winning plays in the final quarter that upheld the lead in spite of several small runs by the Spurs (18-6) that threatened to rip this victory away.
During the fourth, Hickson pulled down five rebounds. After the Blazers failed to block out Tony Parker for a putback – resulting in an 85-81 deficit for the Spurs – the next trip down, Hickson cleaned up Sasha Pavlovic’s miss and scored from the offensive rebound.
Portland defended the 3-point line for four San Antonio misses (1 for 5 in the fourth quarter), but the one that got away tensed up the building. With less than two and a half minutes remaining, small forward Danny Green hit a three that sliced the Blazers’ lead to just 91-88. But never flinching, Lillard saw a gap in the Spurs’ defense and answered Green’s bucket with a finger roll at the rim.
“His skills are obvious,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Lillard, “but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself, and that doesn’t mean he doesn’t play hard. He’s aggressive, he’s not afraid of contact, but he’s got a real fine demeanor and understanding of what’s going on out on the court.”
Lillard showed this awareness the next time down the floor after the Spurs once again cut the lead to three points when he found Nicolas Batum coming around an Aldridge high screen.
Back on Nov. 10, the Blazers ran this play near the end of the game but Batum missed a 3-pointer that would’ve given the team a lead. This time, with 68 seconds remaining, Batum curled round the pick and his three ripped the net.
“That’s exactly the same shot, same play. Come off the (screen) bang!,” Batum said, then shrugged. “That’s basketball.”
Batum finished with 11 points but connected on just four shots in his return to the lineup after missing Monday’s game with a sore back. Though Batum felt his back tightening through the second half, he pulled through. But a play-through-pain night was not to be for the other battered Blazer.
An hour before tipoff, Wesley Matthews walked around the locker room ready for his second straight appearance as best dressed man on the Blazers bench – checkered sports jacket, fedora cocked slightly to the side. Matthews has not participated in practice since injuring his left hip during the Dec. 8 loss to Sacramento.
In his place, rookie Victor Claver got his second consecutive start but scored just as many as Matthews. A big zero on the box score as Claver missed his four shot attempts.
Even so, the Blazers got a lift from the bench – something the team didn’t have the last time they faced the Spurs and San Antonio reserves outscored Portland’s 63-4.
When Pavlovic and Luke Babbitt got up from their seats, they showed the shooting touch. Late in the third quarter, Babbitt dribbled a few steps in from his desired 3-point territory and drained a mid range jumper. The next trip down, Pavlovic pulled from deep and the five-point bench barrage gave the Blazers the 72-61 lead. Babbitt finished with 12 points while Pavlovic chipped in six.
“With Wes and Nic being injured, we’ve needed more from them,” Lillard said. “Some of them have been in the starting lineup. I think they’re starting to come along as far as being confident, just making plays and making shots.
TRAIL BLAZERS 98, SPURS 90
SAN ANTONIO (90) — Green 2-6 0-0 5, Duncan 6-13 4-4 16, Blair 1-1 0-0 2, Parker 7-15 7-7 21, Neal 2-10 0-0 6, Ginobili 4-7 3-6 12, Splitter 4-8 4-8 12, Diaw 3-4 0-0 7, Mills 3-6 0-0 7, De Colo 1-1 0-0 2, Bonner 0-1 0-0 0, Joseph 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 33-72 18-25 90.
PORTLAND (98) — Batum 4-11 2-2 11, Aldridge 10-16 2-2 22, Hickson 5-8 2-2 12, Lillard 11-22 5-5 29, Claver 0-4 0-0 0, Pavlovic 2-7 0-0 6, M.Leonard 1-3 0-0 2, Smith 1-5 0-1 2, Babbitt 5-10 0-0 12, Barton 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 40-88 11-12 98.
San Antonio 21 24 24 21—90
Portland 23 26 27 22—98
3-Point Goals—San Antonio 6-19 (Neal 2-7, Diaw 1-1, Mills 1-3, Ginobili 1-3, Green 1-4, Bonner 0-1), Portland 7-27 (Pavlovic 2-3, Lillard 2-6, Babbitt 2-7, Batum 1-6, Barton 0-1, Smith 0-2, Claver 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—San Antonio 48 (Splitter 7), Portland 47 (Hickson 12). Assists—San Antonio 23 (Ginobili 7), Portland 19 (Batum 8). Total Fouls—San Antonio 11, Portland 19. Technicals—Diaw, Batum. A—19,118 (19,980).