PORTLAND — The band was back together for the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night with small forward Nicolas Batum coming back into the starting line-up.
It was the first time the core group from last season played together since Batum suffered a knee injury on Nov. 9th. And the music was as sweet as ever in a 105-87 win against a short-handed Bulls team without Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich.
Damian Lillard played a wonderful game as band director, methodically getting his teammates involved while his solos had perfect timing. He finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Behind a balanced attack from their starting five the Blazers jumped out to a 17 point lead, led by Batum who scored the first four points of the game.
“I don’t know we just get back to normal, I get back in the line-up, the rotation get back. Wes got back to being Wes, he didn’t have to be me. He kept saying the last couple of games ‘I have to be you,’ ” Batum said.
The Blazers were the best version of themselves and the Bulls certainly couldn’t say the same.
Aldridge hit a couple of three-pointers, Lillard had seven of his nine assists in the first quarter and the Blazers starters were clicking on all cylinders. It was a signature performance while the Bulls looked like they were just trying to hold on after losing in blowout fashion to the Kings the night before.
Without Rose, Gasol and Hinrich, the Bulls were undermanned against a Blazers team that just got their starting lineup that played more than just one five-man unit in the league last season.
It showed. The Bulls starters looked like they were playing catchup against the Blazers all evening long and only their reserves seemed to show signs of life. Led by Montenegrin rookie Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls bench cut the Blazers lead to four twice in the second quarter.
But the starters came back in and regained control of the game. In the third quarter, the Blazers starters kept the momentum going and were getting almost everything they wanted against the Bulls.
And then the frustrations for the Bulls boiled over. Mike Dunleavy decked Lillard, hitting him above the ribs on a three-point attempt showing no intent to even block the shot with 9:48 left in the third quarter. Wesley Matthews subsequently shoved Dunleavy before Chicago’s Aaron Brooks jumped in to shove Matthews with players from both teams trying to break up the scuffle.
In the end, Dunleavy was awarded a Flagrant Foul 1 and stayed in the game while Matthews and Brooks were given offsetting technicals. Lillard made all three of his free-throws and the Blazers route continued.
“Cheap,” Lillard said when asked about his thoughts on the foul. “I thought it was cheap. I’ve had worse things happen but that was the last thing that I would expect on a wide open three point shot. But it was a cheap play.”
“If you’re frustrated be frustrated. But when a defenseless player is shooting the ball, anything could have happened when he fell,” Matthews said.
And the injury bug bit the Bulls once again when Taj Gibson left the game in the third quarter with a left ankle sprain and did not return.
The Blazers now hit the road for their first extended trip of the season which begins in Boston on Sunday.
“We can’t be content. No matter who you are playing against it’s always tough on the road,” Matthews said. “We have to bring that energy that we’ve been playing with at home.”