PORTLAND — As the Trail Blazers head towards a long All-Star break, they were jovial and Wesley Matthews even had the Blazers work on their football plays in pre-game warm-ups.
But behind Matthews’ 20 points and energy, their All-Stars, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, were able to watch the fourth quarter from the bench in a 102-86 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers had managed to stay somewhat close in the first half, but the Blazers blew the game open in the third quarter after holding an eight-point halftime lead.
And led by Matthews, the Blazers treated the Lakers like their little brothers in the third quarter, outscoring them 34-19.
At the 8:47 mark of the third quarter, Matthews dove on the ground for a loose ball and flipped it to a streaking Lillard for a thunderous slam to put the Blazers up by 12.
“Wes made some hustle plays,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “The dive on the floor for Dame’s dunk was the momentum play that really got things going. And you know I thought the starters really took the responsibility of expanding the lead at that time.”
With the win, the Blazers are 36-17, an identical record to last year’s team despite very different circumstances. The Blazers have had a total of 35 missed games from their starters.
“It’s a testament to us getting better,” Matthews said. “We already hit the injury bug. It’s already out the backdoor. Out of sight and out of mind.
“Our bench has developed and guys have played minutes they probably wouldn’t have if guys had been healthy the whole time. So it just strengthens our team.”
For the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant and rookie Julius Randle out for the season with injury, their play reflected the tragic comedy that their season has become.
They loafed on defense and with just a little extra effort, the Blazers, in the words of Lakers head coach Byron Scott, “got a little bit of everything that they wanted.”
Robin Lopez rolled to the rim and slammed with ferocity. LaMarcus Aldridge sprinted down the court like he was 24, poaching easy buckets on his way to a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds.
CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard continued to provide scoring off the bench.
McCollum continued his stretch of aggressive and decisive play on the perimeter off the Blazers bench. Including Wednesday, McCollum has scored in double-figures in three out of the last four outings and in the game he didn’t, he scored nine points.
Leonard made the Lakers pay for not challenging his perimeter shot as he popped to the 3-point line for wide-open looks. He made three 3-pointers on the night and finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
But this season, the All-Star break also includes the trade deadline, which is just eight days away. Through whispers and jokes, the possibility that the locker room could look different lingered.
Thomas Robinson was joking with teammates about possibly not seeing them after the break before and after the game.
“It’s out of our control,” said Leonard on the deadline approaching. “It’s totally management. I think we have a lot of good team chemistry. From top to bottom, guys that care about the team. Never know what can happen obviously.”
In a season where everything has changed, yet stayed the same, the Blazers are where they were last season without the surprise factor.
While continuity has been one of their buzzwords this season, the length and uncertainty of this seasons All-Star break is already bringing on some stresses of its own.