PORTLAND — When staring down an aggressive opponent in a must-win game, it’s never a good sign when the toughest guy in the room hobbles off the court for timeout huddles and limps through offensive sets.
Wesley Matthews would not list himself anywhere close to being healthy but he returned to the floor again on Sunday because the Trail Blazers needed a victory. And needed him.
Through Matthews, maybe the Blazers got inspired and grew a backbone against the old men Celtics. The last time these young guys squared off against a veteran team, they got flustered with the calls in Los Angeles on Friday — as a developing team would — and let their emotions carry them to a seven-game losing streak. However on Sunday night, the Blazers fought through pain and physical play to take the 92-86 win over Boston.
Matthews, still recovering from a sprain in his left leg, scored a game-high 24 points and sank the 3-pointer that should have been the good night and drive home safely signal to the sold-out Rose Garden Arena. Matthews’ step-back triple from the top of the key — his fifth 3-pointer of the night — pulled the Blazers ahead by six with only 53.9 seconds remaining. It sure didn’t look like he felt the throb from his leg as he bounced back down court, screaming. Then again, winning heals all wounds.
“I’m not even close to being 80 percent but I’m out there, I’m fighting and my teammates are bringing me along,” Matthews said. “They’re continuing to support me. That’s who I’m playing for. I’m playing for them. I’m playing for the fans and the franchise because we feel we’ve got something special.”
The window for the playoffs may be closing slightly but the Blazers (26-30) returned to playing like the team that once had a stake in the picture.
The defense stood up, holding the Celtics to 42.4 percent shooting. In the final 90 seconds of play, the Blazers pinched down on back-to-back Boston possessions and forced Paul Pierce, the Celtics’ high scorer with 23 points, into contested and difficult jump shots.
Pierce missed both.
“Needless to say, it was good to get a win after our losing streak,” coach Terry Stotts said. “Obviously, Wes was big with his shotmaking, and I thought our team defense for the most part was pretty good for most of the night.”
Defense takes a certain hardness, and the Blazers certainly snarled and scrapped on Sunday.
During a down moment in the third quarter, Pierce initiated a confrontation with Meyers Leonard and got into the rookie’s face.
Leonard didn’t exactly stand toe to toe with Pierce — he is at least five inches taller — but he stayed there and stared right back.
“Yeah, of course,” said Leonard, who mostly set solid screens and grabbed six rebounds during his 16 minutes on the floor. “That’s what the big man’s supposed to do. I’m supposed to protect the paint, take care of my guards. Take care of the rest of my teammates. (Pierce) wanted to come and talk some crazy stuff to me, and I wasn’t going to back down.”
The Blazers also outrebounded the Celtics by 11, largely due to Victor Claver’s career night under the boards. For the second consecutive game, Claver played his minutes at the forward spots and showed great activity with his personal NBA-best 10 rebounds and two steals to go along with four points.
“I think that’s something that killed us all night,” Pierce said of the 47-36 rebound deficit. “It was a game that could have went either way. But they really beat us in that category as far as 50-50 plays.”
Besides the hustle plays, the Blazers simply hit the clutch shots. The outcome of the game only briefly visited a state of peril — Kevin Garnett tied the score at 86 — because Damian Lillard showed up just in time and Matthews gritted through his pain.
Lillard answered Garnett’s driving layup with one of his own through traffic and a foul.
He hit the free throw and the Blazers led 89-86 with 1:32 remaining. Then, after Nicolas Batum rebounded a Pierce miss, the Blazers returned to the flow of their offense and Matthews knocked down the 3-point shot that needed very little lift but carried the Blazers to a happy ending.
“It’s huge,” Leonard said. “Sometimes you feel that kind of hanging over your head. As losses continue to pile up, there comes a point of when you’re like, ‘All right, we’ve got to snap this thing and get back on the right track.’ And we did that tonight.”