Blazers get back on track

Felton’s return to form sparks rout of Atlanta

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 
photoPortland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum (88) works against Atlanta Hawks forward Marvin Williams during the second half Saturday. Batum led the Blazers in scoring with 22 points as they beat the Hawks 97-77.

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The four-game losing streak at home? Broken. The six straight defeats to the Hawks? History.

But there was a much longer skid snapped at the Rose Garden that may prove most auspicious for the Trail Blazers. For the first time in nearly a month, Raymond Felton played like a point guard his team can trust.

Before Portland's 97-77 win over the Hawks on Saturday, the first-year Blazer was a 205-pound piñata for pundits. Columnists and bloggers both locally and nationally were blasting Felton for his microscopic productivity and forever-wayward outside shot. The criticism had spilled over to Portland coach Nate McMillan, who was incessantly questioned for sticking with the 27-year-old as his starter.

But for at least one day, the condemnation will cease.

Felton racked up 14 points and eight assists Saturday while shooting 6 for 11 from the field. He knocked down 2 of his 5 3-point attempts and rattled in one more from just inside the arc.

There was a sense of freedom in his movement, too — some swagger with his stride. In fact, the casual observer might have described it as something like, well ... fun.

"I felt back to myself, said Felton, who logged 33 minutes in the win. "It's a relief to get back to yourself. I was playing at my pace, having fun out there."

Before Saturday, Felton had played just two games since Jan. 21 in which he shot at least 45 percent from the field. One of those came against the Bobcats, who own the worst record in the league, while the was against the Hornets, who have the worst mark in the Western Conference.

The futility reached its peak Thursday night against the Clippers, when the point guard's scoreless performance highlighted his team's fourth-quarter collapse.

The result led to an emotional Felton telling csnnw.com's Chris Haynes that he felt he no longer had McMillan's confidence, which, in turn, bred a heart-felt discussion between the player and coach.

But perhaps more significantly, it caused Felton to take what he called "Raymond time," — a cathartic period of self-reflection in which he was able re-align his mentality.

"I took some time for myself," said Felton, who likened his discussion with McMillan to one a son would have with his father. "I was away from my phone, away from my family, just taking time to myself."

But while Felton may have been isolated for the day or so leading up to the game vs. the Hawks (19-11), he was far from alone on the court.

All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge returned to the Blazers lineup after missing nearly three full games since suffering an ankle injury in the opening minutes of Portland's Tuesday-night loss to the Wizards. He showed minimal rust, contributing 19 points and 10 rebounds in 34 minutes.

But from McMillan's standpoint, this was the first real chance to assess the proficiency of a new-look starting lineup that featured Nicolas Batum on the court alongside Felton, Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby.

And through one game, it seems to be working.

Batum scored a game-high 22 points for a Blazers team that went into halftime up by 15 points, shot 46.9 percent from the field, and hit 9 of its 22 3-point attempts. Additionally, Portland (17-15) outscored Atlanta in all four quarters, showing no signs of re-enacting one of its many late-game meltdowns this year.

The first unit's effort was so strong that Jamal Crawford, who averages 26.6 minutes for the Blazers off the bench, saw just 13 Saturday.

"We got a good rhythm. We made our shots and we stopped those guys," McMillan said. "We continued to make shots, and we continued to defend."

The Blazers next play Monday vs. the Lakers in Los Angeles.