PORTLAND – The Trail Blazers crushed two opponents on Wednesday night.
The first one, bullies dressed in blue from the Eastern Conference that beats up an opponent before wearing it down. The other, a season-worst losing streak lingering around the team like an unwanted guest.
It would take one of the Blazers’ best efforts to defeat them both, and they did just to end their six-game skid with a 100-80 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
“That was a good one, arguably one of our more solid wins of the season,” coach Terry Stotts said.
The Blazers (21-21) scuffed up the Pacers’ crown of glory. Although Indiana (26-17) has a reputation for defense, Portland shot the best field-goal percentage (56.4) of any Pacers opponent this season.
LaMarcus Aldridge found his target often for a game-high 27 points (12-of-17 shooting) and led the way as every Blazer starter reached double figures.
“I told you!” said J.J. Hickson, wrapped in towel but covered in confidence. “For all you naysayers! All y’all!”
Then, Hickson, in a playful mood, randomly selected a member of the media as his imaginary foe, someone who had doubted the team’s insistence in breaking the losing streak.
“You, too. With the vest on, curly hair,” Hickson said. “Justin Timberlake!”
For a night, the Blazers could thumb their noses up and stick their chests out and scream ‘I told you so’ if they wanted. For one night, the laughter lasted a little longer in the locker room and the post-game quotes were spoken through smiles, not muttered through frustrated and tired voices.
“Anytime you end a losing streak, it’s always fun,” Will Barton said, beaming. “Back to .500. Get that patch on the hole in the boat.”
When four of the starters walked off the court with 1:16 remaining in the game – Hickson remained in to cap off his 14 point, 13 rebound night – a serenade of applause matched their every step. It’s been some time since they could leave the court so early as the Blazers played 10 straight games decided by six points or less, an NBA record.
“We have been in so many two-point games,” Aldridge said. “I thought tonight was kind of weird for us but the guys played great.”
There haven’t been many common threads in the previous six games but both Hickson and Aldridge have singled out the starts as the cause to the consecutive losses.
The Blazers have long talked about improving the way they begin the games, but nothing quite showed the progress as Wednesday.
Through much of the first quarter, the Blazers shot with 50-percent accuracy and shared the ball as every starter collected at least one of the team’s seven assists. Finally, their actions met their words and for the firs time in four games, the Blazers led after the first quarter, 20-17.
“We knew coming in this team was going to challenge us,” Indiana Pacer forward Paul George said. “They shot the ball well. They had us scrambling, running all over the floor all night.”
George could’ve summed up his thoughts by simply saying the Blazers pretended to be the Pacers.
From the team’s Tuesday practice until Stotts met reporters 75 minutes before the game, his praise for the Pacers evolved from calling them “arguably” the top defensive team to the “best” in the league. The statistics back up the declaration as the Pacers rank No. 1 in points allowed, opponent field-goal percentage and rebounding. But through the second quarter, Portland played the brand of defensive basketball as Indiana should have.
Ronnie Price, providing solid minutes in his backup point guard role, swiped a possession that led to a Barton fast break. Price also steadied himself for as George Hill plowed through him for the offensive foul call. Even after Price got a nice hand as he walked out of the game, Batum followed his lead on the very next play by taking a charge against Paul George – the Blazers’ third charge call of the half.
The stops continued to pile up and the Blazers stretched a 16-2 run over five minutes of play.
“Give Portland credit,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They came out and played with great desperation. It’s very difficult to come out and play a really good team on a six-game losing streak. The brought the fight to us with their defense.”
The Blazers locked down the Pacers to quarters of 17 and 15 points at the same time as their offense flourished. Damian Lillard finished with 20 points and eight assists while Batum played his all-around game for 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Wesley Matthews finished with 10 points.