PORTLAND — The only two games on the NBA schedule Thursday night featured a pair of teams searching for a way back into the playoff picture, and needing primetime wins to get there.
The first, the Dallas Mavericks, lost theirs. Then the Portland Trail Blazers hit the floor for their nationally televised game against the New York Knicks. Outsiders though they may be, for a night the Blazers could say they’ve still got a chance.
With a 105-90 win over the Knicks, the Blazers pulled even with the Mavericks for the 10th spot in the Western Conference standings.
Though Dallas has the tiebreaker, winning two of the three series meetings so far this season, Portland (30-34) earned an essential win to keep hope afloat with 18 games remaining in the season. The Blazers are three games behind the Los Angeles Lakers, who currently hold the eighth and final spot.
“With (the Knicks) being shorthanded and us trying to get into this last spot,” LaMarcus Aldridge said, “every game is important right now.”
Three Blazer starters finished with double-doubles, including the usual suspects in the frontline, Aldridge (22 points, 10 rebounds) and J.J. Hickson (12 and 16).
But on a night when a sold-out Rose Garden crowd lustily jeered the return of former Blazer Raymond Felton, Portland fans also realized how good they’ve got it with their latest point guard. Rookie Damian Lillard played 40 minutes, 11 seconds of picture-perfect basketball. He converted on 11 of 18 shots for 26 points and led the team with 10 assists against only one turnover.
“He had a terrific game as he usually does,” coach Terry Stotts said.
Portland never lost its lead through the second half, but when a J.R. Smith 3-pointer pulled the Knicks within 80-76 in the fourth quarter, the Blazers regrouped for an appropriate response that one would expect from a desperate team.
Thanks to unselfish ball movement, the Blazers scored six straight assisted field goals. Batum shared the ball for three straight assists before Hickson found him cutting to the lane for a score. Later in the midst of a 15-2 run, Batum waited beyond the arc for Lillard to find him then the two switched roles as Batum swung the pass to Lillard for an open 3-pointer.
The torrent would bury the Knicks (38-25) once and for all, but they had already been beaten by injuries.
Any gathering of the New York frontline would resemble a doctor’s waiting room. Before the game, Rasheed Wallace hobbled through the players’ entrance on a crutch. Starting center Tyson Chandler rested with a knee contusion, and forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were nowhere near the Pacific Northwest. Anthony had flown back to New York to have a corrective procedure on his left knee. Stoudemire likely will miss the next six weeks while recovering from knee surgery.
In their absence, the Knicks trotted out Chris Copeland, Kurt Thomas and Kenyon Martin and their collective 21 starts on the year.
“Without Amar’e, Tyson and ‘Melo, not to say we’re supposed to beat them,” Lillard said, “(but) if you can catch a team like that on your home floor, you’ve got to get it done.”
Their statistics underwhelming, their star power unimpressive. And yet after the first quarter, with the Knicks holding a 30-22 lead, the trio had united for 16 points.
These Knicks may not be able to turn heads on Madison Avenue but as feeble as the roster appeared, they still had experience in spades over Portland.
In the second quarter, Marcus Camby, all 38 years of him, taught the younger Blazers how not to defend his pick-and-roll. Under the eight-minute mark, Camby set multiple screens to free backup point guard Pablo Prigioni from Will Barton. The Portland rookie initially stayed with the play but got lost after Camby’s second screen as the old man rolled to the basket and scored to give the Knicks a 41-28 lead.
Moments later, 40-year-old Kurt Thomas drew an offensive foul against Barton to spoil a conversion after a turnover.
Although the Knicks held a double-digit lead through most of the quarter, with about three minutes left in the half, the Blazers’ defense showed up and sparked a momentum-shifting run.
Portland turned to a bigger lineup and rolled off 13 straight points, pulling ahead 51-48 by halftime. Over time, the lead only expanded, as did the Blazers’ playoff hopes.
“We have 18 left,” Batum said. “We have to try to win 18 games.”