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Close win (what's new?) means Blazers greet Santa with 23-5 mark


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Point guard Damian Lillard came on strong at the end, again, as the Trail Blazers won a close game, again.It's going to be a very merry Christmas in the Trail Blazers family.

A 110-107 victory over New Orleans Saturday night at the Moda Center means the Blazers will greet Santa Claus with a 23-5 record, percentage points behind Oklahoma City (22-4) for the NBA's best record.

"I've been a little surprised," said center Robin Lopez, who played for the Pelicans a year ago. "I'm not going to lie. But the second I got here and started playing with the guys, I had a very positive feeling. Chemistry has come together very quickly."

For a team that was 33-49, finishing last season with 13 straight losses, the current record is just a shade short of shocking.

"I didn't know this would happen, but it feels good," said point guard Damian Lillard, the hero on this night with a game-high 29 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. "Especially getting this last win going into the break. We have to be thankful for how well we've done, and keep working so we don't fall from this."

Portland handed Monty Williams' Pelicans (11-14) their fourth straight loss despite shooting a season-worst .276 (8 for 29) from 3-point range. But the Blazers were 4 for 8 from downtown in the fourth quarter after going 4 for 21 the first three periods.

The Blazers rallied from a 13-point second-quarter deficit with a 13-0 spurt just before halftime, extended their lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter and then made just enough plays in the clutch to win.

"We don't want to keep doing this, but we got the key stops and guys made shots down the stretch for us," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who managed to contribute 18 points and eight rebounds on an off night.

Portland coach Terry Stotts was not thrilled that New Orleans scored so many points, and many of them came quite easily. He liked the final result, however.

"Believe it or not, we still keep preaching defense," Stotts said. "We had a slow start, but one thing about our team -- we keep competing. As a coach, that's what you want your team to do. We keep finding ways to win. We make stops when we need them. We make shots when we need them."

Lillard was the straw stirring the drink down the stretch, making plays at both ends to keep his team on the right side of the raft.

"Damian understands what needs to be done," Stotts said. "He takes it upon himself when he needs to. He is fearless going to the basket. Damian's play kind of speaks for itself. It's not like we should be surprised by anything."

New Orleans -- better this season with the addition of guards Jrue Holliday and Tyreke Evans and the maturation of second-year center Anthony Davis -- started the game 8 for 10 from the field and grabbed an 18-7 lead just five minutes into the game. The Pelicans settled for a 26-21 advantage after one quarter, then extended it to 49-36 before the Blazers turned it on with the 13-0 tear to tie the count at 49-49 with a minute to go before halftime. New Orleans went into the break ahead 53-52.

The Blazers opened a 96-86 lead with nine minutes left. The Pelicans rallied to take the advantage at 103-101 on a pair of Davis free throws with 2:59 remaining. Lillard's jumper tied the score at 103-103, but Davis scored on a follow dunk to make it 105-103 with 2:15 to play. Lillard's 3-pointer pushed Portland ahead 106-105 with 1:28 to go. Wesley Matthews' driving layup made it 108-105 with 42 seconds left.

Evans scored on a drive to close the gap to 108-107 with 21 seconds on the clock. Portland's Nicolas Batum's two foul shots made it 110-107 with 12.4 seconds remaining. After a timeout, the Pelicans got two 3-point attempts in the closing seconds -- by Ryan Anderson and then Evans -- but neither went down.


    • Portland's next action is Thursday night at home against the Los Angeles Clippers.

    • All five Portland starters scored in double figures, including Aldridge (18 points, eight rebounds), Matthews (18 points, six boards), Lopez (14 points, seven rebounds) and Batum (11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists).

    • Aldridge started the game 2 for 10 shooting and never really warmed up, finishing 8 for 24. "I still haven't found my rhythm after the Minnesota game," said Aldridge, who was 7 for 22 in Wednesday night's 120-109 loss to the Timberwolves. "I was open. I just missed shots."

    • Lillard started the game 1 for 6, then made 10 of his last 15 shots from the field. He joins Golden State's Stephen Curry and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant as the only players with three straight games of 29 points and five assists or more this season. It's the first time in Lillard's career he has scored 25 points or more in three straight games.

    • The Blazers have won only two games by more than 15 points this season. They are 15-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer.

    • The Blazers have outscored the opposition in the third quarter of 21 games, many times to erase halftime deficits. "It would behoove us to get off to a better start," mused Lopez.

    • New Orleans had a 56-42 edge in points in the paint.

    • Center Jason Smith (knee), who had started all 24 games of the Pelicans, did not play.

    • Portland is 6-0 in games coming off losses. No team has gone through an NBA season without at least a two-game losing streak. "That's our goal," Portland guard Mo Williams said. "We don't want to lose two in a row. Ever."

    • The Blazers own a streak of 15 consecutive games having scored 100 or more points, the franchise's longest since 1991.

    • Portland center Meyers Leonard, who had played only 43 minutes all season, got in 10 minutes Saturday night, including stints in each half. He finished with two points and four rebounds, making his only shot attempt.

    "He did what we needed him to do," Stotts said. "He still needs to rebound better, but I was pleased with the way he played."

    • Davis, making his first start for New Orleans after missing seven games with a broken bone in his left hand, was 8 for 13 from the field and battled Aldridge all night at the defensive end.

    Does coach Monty Williams believe the NBA's first draft pick in 2012 is back to 100 percent?

    "A.D. is 20 years old," the former Blazer assistant coach said pregame. "They're always 100 percent. When you're that age, it's just part of the deal. His 85 is like my 150 percent."

    • Monty Williams was with Portland during Aldridge's first four NBA seasons. He worked often with the power forward, who is being mentioned as a Most Valuable Player Award candidate this season.

    "LaMarcus is playing at an MVP level," Williams said. "He was a guy who didn't get the notoriety a No. 2 (draft) pick should get, and Brandon (Roy) got off to such an unbelievable start, you tended to forget about LaMarcus. He's finally getting the due that he has been wanting for a while. He won't admit it, but that's what he wants -- to be seen as an MVP-type player.

    "It's something we've known for a while. Now he's secure with where he is at this point in his career. He's good, and he knows it. There's no guesswork anymore. When Team USA talking about needing to have him play, that's a sign he's raised his game."

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