PORTLAND — Damian Lillard knows the questions won’t stop.
“It don’t matter what I do,” he said, “you’re going to ask me about Rookie of the Year.”
“If I have a bad game: ‘How does this (affect) your Rookie of the Year?’ If I have a good game …”
Then, the questions become declarations.
Lillard, the first-year player, won the starting point guard position even before training camp started. The love and devotion from Trail Blazers fans soon followed. And for his next prize. … well, the trophy for Rookie of the Year will not be rewarded until the end of the season. However after performances like Sunday, when he hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the Blazers’ 95-94 victory over the New Orleans Hornets, Lillard better prepare for more questions because his lead in the rookie race has only widened.
While Nicolas Batum played an all-around stat stuffer of game (11 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals and five blocks) and J.J. Hickson led all Blazers with 26 points and 16 rebounds, Lillard’s final shot saved the team that had blown a large lead, as well as lost two starters.
When the score was tied 92-92 late in the game, LaMarcus Aldridge jumped for an offensive rebound and landed on his opponent Ryan Anderson’s foot. With 25.8 seconds remaining, Aldridge hobbled back to the locker room, and past Wesley Matthews who sat the majority of the game after coming back from his left hip injury.
A sprained left ankle and a bum hip could have been the subplot of a Blazer meltdown that allowed the Hornets to erase a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit. Hornets’ rookie Austin Rivers drilled a top-of-the-arc triple that tied the game. But, Portland’s candidate for Rookie of the Year made an even bigger statement. Lillard connected on his team’s 37th field goal — only one better than the Hornets — for his first game-winning shot in the NBA.
Lillard finished with 16 points and four assists, while the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, Anthony Davis, contributed 15 and five rebounds.
“I was excited to win the game,” Lillard said, his team now 11-12 this season. “We had a big lead, we let them fight back and tie the game up and we were looking at overtime, so I was kind of relived and excited at the same time.”
Same could be said for the delirious 18,772 fans inside the Rose Garden. One of them with courtside seats even got his hand nearly taken off with an epic high-five as Lillard celebrated down court.
“He was the first person I saw,” Lillard said, “and I just slapped his hand.”
Just 0.3 seconds remained in the game after Lillard’s shot. The small amount of time only afforded New Orleans for an alley-oop at the rim, finished by Lance Thomas.
“You need 0.4 (seconds) to really get a shot off,” New Orleans coach Monty Williams said after his team dropped to 5-18. “It’s one of those situations where you just try to work on something that you may need in the future.”
The Blazers’ future, however, may depend on medical reports.
Matthews sustained his injury on Dec. 8 late in the Sacramento game. That night, Matthews walked out of the arena with a noticeable limp. Although Matthews tried to return two days later to keep his Iron Man streak (250 consecutive games played) alive, he could not make it through his pregame workout.
Matthews took the next several days to receive treatment and participated in light basketball work, like shooting, but missed practice all week. On Sunday, he was ready to go — stating before the game that his hip “feels alright.”
Matthews looked healthy in draining his first shot — a corner three only 35 seconds into the game. However, at the 8:30 mark, Matthews went to the sidelines and never returned. The explanation: the hip that felt “alright” an hour before the game, “just didn’t feel right,” according to the update sent by the Blazers media relations.
“Everything that I did prior to the game — felt good,” Matthews said. “Got out there, playing, hit my first shot, I tried to fight over a screen and I said, it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t ready. It’s no setback, it’s just not there yet.”
Aldridge had X-rays that returned negative, but needed the assistance of crutches after the game.
“We’ll see if it gets better,” Aldridge said, “but right now it’s just an ankle sprain.”
TRAIL BLAZERS 95, HORNETS 94
NEW ORLEANS (94) — Aminu 0-1 0-0 0, Anderson 9-16 1-2 26, Lopez 4-8 0-0 8, Vasquez 9-20 3-3 23, Rivers 3-8 1-2 8, Davis 5-10 5-6 15, Henry 0-2 0-0 0, Mason 1-4 0-0 3, Thomas 4-5 0-0 8, Roberts 0-1 0-0 0, McGuire 1-5 1-2 3. Totals 36-80 11-15 94.
PORTLAND (95) — Batum 4-11 0-0 11, Aldridge 8-17 4-4 20, Hickson 10-14 4-6 24, Lillard 5-14 2-2 16, Matthews 1-1 0-0 3, Claver 1-2 0-0 3, Babbitt 4-7 0-0 10, Barton 1-6 0-0 2, Price 1-2 0-0 2, Leonard 0-0 0-0 0, Pavlovic 2-6 0-0 4, Jeffries 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 37-80 10-12 95.
New Orleans 19 24 20 31–94
Portland 25 29 21 20–95
3-Point Goals–New Orleans 11-20 (Anderson 7-10, Vasquez 2-7, Rivers 1-1, Mason 1-2), Portland 11-29 (Lillard 4-10, Batum 3-9, Babbitt 2-5, Matthews 1-1, Claver 1-2, Barton 0-1, Pavlovic 0-1). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–New Orleans 51 (Vasquez 8), Portland 42 (Hickson 16). Assists–New Orleans 21 (Vasquez 11), Portland 25 (Batum 10). Total Fouls–New Orleans 15, Portland 12. Flagrant Fouls–Lopez, Batum. A–18,772 (19,980).