Blazers' skid reaches six as rally falls just short

Aldridge: Portland's mindset 'just trying to win games'

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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PORTLAND — Crumpled up in the locker stall separating LaMarcus Aldridge and Ronnie Price was a Trail Blazers-Suns halftime statistics report. On it, someone had drew circles around the opponent's extremely high field-goal percentage and scribbled on the bottom one word: Mindset.

And after their 102-98 loss to the Phoenix Suns — a game in which they never led and allowed a clumsy foe only its third victory on the road — what exactly was the Blazers' mindset?

Certainly wasn't on defense as the Blazers allowed a team to shoot 50 percent of more for the fourth time in five games.

Also not on filling the absence of injured Wesley Matthews as Portland got just two field goals from the bench and only one from its replacement starting two-guard.

And by the looks of the flat and listless start, the mindset was not on ending a five-game losing streak that saddled the team before last week's All-Star break.

Aldridge, who scored 23 points, said he did not write the "mindset" message — the handwriting looked too nice to be his — but with the Blazers (25-29) slipping further from the Western Conference playoff picture, he forecasted the team's mentality moving forward.

"Just trying to win games," Aldridge said simply. "Just trying to get into that eighth spot. Just trying to make up ground. We didn't do it well tonight. We have to finish strong, but we definitely got to start better."

At the beginning of the game, the Blazers fell down 12-0 as 11 of their first possessions ended in eight missed shots and three turnovers. Even energy source J.J. Hickson started slowly, but finished strong with a team-high 25 points and 16 rebounds.

Hickson's line would have stood as the lone bright spot in a lethargic loss had it not been for the Blazers' late rally in which they trimmed a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter to just 100-98 with 20.5 seconds remaining.

"I don't know what it is. That's been the story all year," Hickson said of the team's second-half surges. "We definitely had a chance to win it at the end but we came up short. ... The first half definitely cost us."

That same story played out last week on the road, before the Blazers stopped competing and clawing like they had shown in previous games and concluded the six-game road trip with a thud.

The next day after the embarrassing loss to New Orleans, the Blazers separated for the All-Star break. Even while coach Terry Stotts spent time relaxing — or trying to — at a resort outside of Tucson, he hoped that players would return to Portland and rediscover themselves.

"I think the best way to get an edge back is competing and playing hard and doing the things that we've kind of been known to do this year," Stotts said before the game. "It's easier to do that at home. The fans help you out, particularly a young team coming back home. It's easier to get that edge back. After a rest, physically we should be ready to play, as well."

But maybe they needed a longer break.

"We missed open shots," said Nicolas Batum, who missed nine of his 14 attempts. "Then after that, we didn't play tough enough."

Matthews did not play, still recovering from an ankle sprain, and his replacement — rookie Victor Claver — attempted two shots and finished with four points. Backup point guard Nolan Smith replaced Claver during the fourth-quarter run and though the Blazers did work back into the game, Matthews' absence was felt.

Smith only made one of two free throws for a chance to cut the lead to three points with less than 90 seconds remaining. Later, Smith got caught in a corner -- usually a good destination for Matthews to shoot a 3-pointer — and forced a shot that bricked off the side of the backboard. Smith finished with one point in 17 minutes, 17 seconds of play. Still, Smith's substitution wasn't the reason for doom.

This was a team loss.

"Come game time we just came out a little too flat, man," Hickson said. "I don't know what it was. I can't really put my finger on it."