PORTLAND — For the first time ever, the Trail Blazers started four rookies.
So, as the Los Angeles Lakers visited the Rose Garden, the circumstance created the perfect setting for a night of firsts and historical feats.
Damian Lillard, as passionate as he has played in a Blazer uniform, redefined his rookie season with a career-high night that even made Kobe Bryant take notice. Lillard’s teammates backed him up and scored at a blistering rate for the team’s best first-half total of the season.
But Bryant made some history of his own as well, and his record-setting Wednesday night pulled the Lakers to the 113-106 win.
After an effort for the ages, the Blazers (33-45) wandered off their home floor with their ninth straight loss – matching the longest streak since the 2005-2006 season.
“We wanted to try to come out and have energy from the beginning, try to end the losing streak,” Lillard said. “That’s what it’s going to take for us to win the game, we’re going to have to put together a whole 48 minutes with energy, being competitive and playing together. I thought we did that (Wednesday), we just came up short.”
Scintillating from the start, Lillard scored a career-high 38 points on 12-of-15 shooting that included 5-of-11 from beyond the 3-point line. Not to be outdone, Bryant established a new standard for opponents at the Rose Garden in scoring 47 points without ever leaving the court. Bryant surpassed the former Rose Garden opponent record (44 points by LeBron James) with a dagger jump shot that propelled the Lakers to a six-point lead within the final 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
“We haven’t won a back-to-back all year,” Bryant said. “So it’s good to be in this pressure situation, having to do it and having to keep control of our own destiny.”
Lillard and Bryant put on a show inside the sold-out arena. Primetime one-on-one at its finest.
Lillard motivated to break an extended losing streak even without the services of three regular starters (Nicolas Batum, J.J. Hickson and Wesley Matthews). Bryant determined to pull the Lakers into the playoffs, even if it meant playing the full 48 minutes on a back-to-back night.
“It was Damian versus Kobe,” said LaMarcus Aldridge who finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds. “Both of those guys had it going. That was fun to watch. It was fun to be out there.”
Early in the game when Bryant drilled a long jumper, Lillard confidently countered by banking in a 3-point shot that gave the Blazers a nine-point advantage in the first quarter.
When Lillard pumped in his sixth shot near the end of the quarter, Bryant decided to cut into the 35-25 deficit by slicing through the Blazers’ defense for a layup.
Later, Lillard – who gave three inches in height to the taller, stronger veteran – switched over to defending Bryant and wouldn’t back down on defense. Lillard got whistled for a foul against Bryant near the close of the first half and for the first time in his NBA career, earned a technical foul for zealously protesting the call.
“I wasn’t trying to get (a technical),” Lillard said. “But I felt like we needed to play with some emotion.”
Lillard played down the duel angle – the man wearing the letter “O” versus the one who calls himself Vino – but after the epic night, the two shook hands and shared their respect. Their love fest continued late into the night on Twitter as both players offered the other his “salute.”
“He’s fantastic,” Bryant said of Lillard. “Really fantastic. It wasn’t a game where he was just hot. A lot of players get hot.”
“I told him he was a bad boy,” continued Bryant, sharing more postgame praise. “He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight.”
And in the first half, the Blazers squeezed the lighter fluid. As the starting lineup of Aldridge and the four-rookie quartet of Lillard, Will Barton, Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard torched the Lakers for a season-best 69 points.
Those young legs successfully darted around the older and slower Lakers from the start as Leonard won the tip over Dwight Howard and Barton attempted and swished in the game’s first shot.
“We just ran,” Barton said. “At the end of the day, every one who is out there is a pro so when people go down, those guys got to step up. I think that’s what we did in the first half. We were out there just flowing and pushing the tempo and getting out running.”
The rookies found each other in transition – Barton sent a pass to Claver for an inside finish – and worked wonders in the half-court set as Lillard found Leonard in the pick-and-roll. Then Lillard took over by ripping in three triples and the Blazers opened up a 12-point advantage in the opening quarter.
However, if the fairy tale had ended after 24 minutes, with the Blazers leading 69-61, then Pau Gasol likely would not have been heard rapping through the visitors’ locker room at the end of the night. Metta World Peace would not have told reporters that he sensed something special on the horizon and Bryant would not have tweeted his 1.8 million followers with: #vintagevino.
No. The swagger would have belonged to the team down the hallway. But the good vibes ended because the young Blazers could not match their hot scoring through the second half, neither adjusted well enough when the Lakers decided to blitz Lillard.
Los Angeles, desperate to live up to expectations and secure a postseason berth ahead of the Utah Jazz, opened the second half with a 17-2 run. Although the Blazers responded – a Lillard three, of course – to even the score at 78-78, the game turned into a back-and-forth affair before Bryant broke loose.
Bryant, the 34-year-old who spent equal times scorching the veteran Sasha Pavlovic as well as shutting down 22-year-old Barton, made an array of jaw-dropping jumpers through the third quarter but also contributed in other ways.
Bryant swatted away four shots, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists. Then, Bryant got help.
Gasol capped a personal spurt of three straight buckets near the midway point of the fourth quarter. After Gasol’s game-tying mid-range shot, Steve Blake unlocked the Lillard puzzle on defense. The Lakers led 102-100 when Blake, a former Blazer guard and now starting at point for the Lakers in place of the injured Steve Nash, forced Lillard into the turnover. When Bryant gathered the loose ball, Lillard committed a clear-path foul that gave the Lakers two free throws plus another possession.
After Bryant sank his two attempts from the line, he lured Pavlovic into an isolation play, dribbled with a purpose to a foot inside the arc and finished the possession with the deep jump shot for the 106-100 lead with 4:30 remaining.
“He was on a mission,” Stotts said of Bryant. “He played the whole game. Usually, he feels out the game but he came out very aggressive to start.”
“What can you say about a 47-point performance? He’s done that before.”
On top of his late-game defense, Blake also outworked the Blazers’ Eric Maynor for two critical offensive rebounds. After Blake’s second grab, Gasol lobbed his team-high ninth assist to Howard for an alley-oop slam that pulled the Lakers ahead again by six points with under a minute to play.
The Lakers improved to 42-37 and now carry a full game lead over the Jazz for the 8th spot. From trying to spoil the Lakers’ last-seeded hopes to facing the top team in the West, the Blazers will look to snap the losing streak Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It was a very good effort by our team, but unfortunately we couldn’t pull it out,” Stotts concluded. “A couple plays down the stretch could have gone either way, a couple shots could have gone either way. For the most part, I thought it was a well-played game against a team that’s pretty hungry to make the playoffs.”