Blazers turn up the heat at home vs. Suns

Portland basks in warmth of a 5-game winning streak

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: December 22, 2012, 11:11 PM

 
photoPortland’s Damian Lillard (0) shoots between Phoenix’s Goran Dragic, right, and Jared Dudley during the second half Saturday. Lillard led the Trail Blazers in scoring with 25 points as they beat the Suns 96-93.

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PORTLAND — Outside of the frosted glass doors leading to the locker room, there awaits a cold world.

The Trail Blazers can pull up the collars of their sweaters and wrap themselves under designer scarfs all they want, but it's chillier than the biting Portland weather on Saturday night.

It is the ice-cold reality of the NBA road where the Blazers have lost eight of 12 games this season.

Good thing for Portland, it's nice and warm inside the Rose Garden.

On Saturday night, the Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive game with a 96-93 win over the Phoenix Suns.

For the first time since Nov. 3, the Blazers (13-12) are looking over the top of the .500 mark — a product of the team tending to its Garden during a six-game stretch at home.

"It's cliché, but in retrospect, I'm really glad we were able to take advantage of the six-game homestand," coach Terry Stotts said. "Especially starting with losing badly to Sacramento (Dec. 8)."

The last time the Blazers faced the Suns in Phoenix, the desert was as cold as a refrigerator. The Suns made shots with near 60-percent accuracy and blew out the Blazers, 114-87.

Now playing this team in front of 19,746 home fans, and the effort and energy turns around. On Saturday night, the Blazers locked down on defense for 44.9-percent shooting and outrebounded the Suns 45-32, the widest margin of the season.

"It means a lot," center J.J. Hickson said of the five-game winning streak all at home. "We started the season off a little rusty, so to speak. We had a couple ups and downs, but I think now we're finding our niche and finding out the way that we have to play to win basketball games and close out games."

During this stand, Hickson has stepped up, Damian Lillard has padded his All-Rookie Everything résumé, and starters have dropped in and out of the lineup but the consistent result has been a Blazers' win.

On Saturday, Wesley Matthews returned to the injury list. After about 10 minutes in the first quarter, the Blazers called time. Matthews subbed out and never returned; his problematic left hip flexor strain the culprit once again.

Matthews sustained the injury on Dec. 10 — the Toronto Raptors' game that started this streak -- and he hasn't been right since. As the team prepares for Sacramento Sunday night, Matthews did not accompany the team on the trip. He will miss his third game since the injury.

At that same time when Matthews exited the game, LaMarcus Aldridge, who made his return to the starting lineup after missing one game with an ankle sprain, got his first rest of the evening. Unlike Matthews, Aldridge looked fully healthy as he played 39 minutes and seven seconds and contributed 17 points and nine rebounds.

However, Aldridge took a backseat to Hickson's seventh consecutive double-double night (19 and 15) and the rookie whose fourth-quarter daggers incinerated the Suns.

Lillard, who finished with a game-high 25 points, took over late in the game. Sasha Pavlovic had made a 3-pointer and after a defensive stop, Lillard pulled from the top of the arc for another triple that extended the Blazers' lead to 92-85 with about four minutes remaining.

On the next possession, Lillard raced past his defender, Goran Dragic, and scooped in the right-handed layup. Then with only 41.2 seconds left, Lillard kept the Suns' Shannon Brown on a string and lost him on a step-back jumper that ripped the net for the 96-91 lead.

Still, the team defense provided the lasting highlight as the Blazers chased the Suns away from good looks at potential game-tying 3-pointers in the closing seconds. One by one, a Sun player passed up attempts behind the arc before Dragic forced one up. The buzzer sounded and for the fifth straight time, the red and silver streamers fell from the ceiling.

Now, the Blazers return to the road. Although foreign arenas haven't been kind for this young team, the momentum from their recent home stand just might find a spot with them on the team plane.

"We have to be our own crowd," Hickson said. "We have to go to Sacramento on a back to back and get a win."