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Another close loss as Blazers face life without L.A.

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - San Antonio's Marco Belinelli (left) and Manu Ginobili (right) and the Spurs' small ball caused problems for a shorthanded Portland team that relied on Wesley Matthews and others, minus All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.Every now and again -- about as often as major snowfall hits the City of Roses -- the San Antonio Spurs knock off the Trail Blazers.

It happened Wednesday night at the Moda Center, little Patty Mills and the Spurs stealing away with a 111-109 victory that carved another little piece from the heart of the local quintet.

Mills -- the one-time Blazer cast-off who has found life, and then some. on the San Antonio bench -- scored 29 points in exactly 29 minutes as Portland (36-18) lost its first game after the All-Star break.

Against no other NBA opponent has San Antonio experienced such futility. Not even close.

Going into Wednesday, the Spurs had beaten the Blazers in five of 19 meetings dating to 2008. Only once in nine tries over that span had the Alamo City crew won in Portland. The Blazers went into the night 2-0 in the season series.

"What, when was the last time we've won here -- like never?" San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich lamented pregame.

The Spurs (40-16) got it done Wednesday night without the services of starters Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. As is his wont, Popovich held out veterans Duncan and Parker for rest purposes; Leonard has a broken hand.

Portland was at much less than full strength, too, with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and backup centers Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard sitting it out due to injuries.

San Antonio won out in the battle of small ball, with Mills and fellow guards Marco Belinelli (20 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range) and Manu Ginobili (16 points, five rebounds and four assists in 19 minutes) as the chief attack dogs.

The Blazers, with small forward Dorell Wright filling Aldridge's spot in the starting lineup, led throughout much of the game and rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie it at 101-101 on a Wesley Matthews steal and solo dunk with 1:54 to play.

Belinelli answered with a 3-ball, though, and the Spurs led by at least three points the rest of the way until Damian Lillard's meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer.

"We tried to beat them at their game, and they did better than us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "They played their small lineup more effectively. We didn't do enough defensively to get a win."

That's for sure. After leading 24-18 after one quarter, the Blazers yielded San Antonio 93 points over the final three periods. The Spurs worked the pick-and-roll over and over, especially late in the game. The Blazers never found an antidote.

"They're an unselfish team," Stotts said. "They executed their pick-and-roll offense really well. They took what was there."

Normally, 109 points produces a victory.

"Offensively, there's no problem," Matthews said. "We have to stop beating ourselves on the defensive end."

The Spurs' linchpin was Mills, who was 13 for 26 from the field, though only 1 for 5 from 3-point range, while continuing his torrid play of late. Mills has shot 54 percent and averaged 21 points over the past seven games.

"He's been doing it for a while now," said Matthews, a teammate of Mills' in Portland during the 2010-11 season. "The amazing thing was, he scored 29 making only one 3. That's hard to do."

With Aldridge (groin), Freeland (knee) and Leonard (ankle) out of action, the only 4-5 types available were starting center Robin Lopez and reserve power forward Thomas Robinson.

Stotts, not wanting to risk foul trouble for both Lopez and Robinson early, chose to give the 6-9, 205-pound Wright his first start as a Blazer. Out of position, Wright held his own, contributing 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting to go with five points in 20 minutes while playing San Antonio's Boris Diaw (11 points, 5 for 14, five boards) even.

"I didn't try to do anything outside the box," said Wright, who had scored 7 points over the previous six weeks and hadn't really been in the Blazers' rotation since Jan. 4. "It was different going in there and battling with 4-men. I'm a little skinny guy. I just tried to do whatever I could do."

Robinson was fine, too, collecting 10 points and nine rebound in 23 minutes off the bench. Wright and Robinson are reserves, but they'll be asked to do more for at least a couple of more weeks.

Coming off his busy All-Star weekend, Lillard was outstanding, knocking down 13 of 21 shots in a 31-point, 6-assist, 4-rebound performance. Of course, the point guard in the other team's uniform was pretty good, too.

"We knew he'd take jumpers, but he got to the rim and started making floaters," Lillard said of Mills. "He was just in a good rhythm."

Lillard spent some time defending Mills, but the primary responsibility went to Nicolas Batum, who was pretty much missing in action at both ends. The 6-8 Batum, who has had success guarding point guards much of the season, couldn't stay with Mills Wednesday night. And, at the offensive end, Batum missed his first six shots and didn't score a basket until making a 3-pointer with 3:49 to play. He finished 2 for 8 shooting, with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocked shots and 2 steals in 40 minutes.

"It was a very bad game," Batum said. "We lost by two. I had a very bad game, too. I don't make shots, I let Patty Mills do what he wants to do.

"It's our first game in one week. I don't know -- I felt tired early. It was just a bad game."

The Blazers are in a critical stretch of the season. Wednesday's game was the first of seven home games in the team's next eight contests. Aldridge will miss at least the next three games, Leonard two to three weeks, Freeland three to seven weeks.

"During this stretch, we're going to have to figure some things out at both ends of the floor," Stotts said.

Aldridge has been the Blazers' security blanket, Matthews said.

"We don't have the luxury of L.A. back there to cover for us," he said. "Joel and Meyers, too. We have Robin and T-Rob, and they're doing their best, but we have to help them out more.

"We're a confident group. We scored 109 points. We know we can do it offensively. We just have to play 48 minutes of solid defense."

The Blazers have lost eight of their last 13 games. After a 22-4 start, they have gone 14-14.

"I'm not concerned," Lillard said. "It's just a rough stretch. We're going to have to find a way to turn it back around. It's been a great season so far, but teams are coming after us now. We're more of a target. We have to do a better job of accepting it and going after teams."

There can't be too much more back-sliding, though, if the Blazers hope to gain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"It's exciting, actually," Matthew said. "We'll see what we're made of. We'll learn more about ourselves."

NOTES

• Portland's next action is Friday night at home against Utah.

• The Blazers' record fell to 11-9 in games decided by five or fewer points.

• Aldridge's absence broke a string of 53 straight games together for the Trail Blazers' five starters. No other team had a starting unit last more than 14 games into the season together.

• Aldridge did not play on the night when a promotional LaMarcus Aldridge drinking glass was given to spectators.

• Lillard, on playing without Aldridge: "I can play the same game. But instead of telling myself I need to do it all, we have guys who can come in and pitch in a little bit more and fill the void. And of course, I'll have to raise my game."

• Reserve guard Mo Williams scored a season-high 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting for the Blazers.

• Lopez (11 points, 14 rebounds) had his 20th double-double of the season.

• Lillard scored 15 points in the fourth quarter.

• The Spurs have the best road record in the NBA at 22-7.

• They are 6-2 and on a nine-game road trip interrupted by the All-Star break. The trip began Feb. 3 at New Orleans and ends Friday at Phoenix. The Spurs have to vacate the building for nearly three weeks to accommodate the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo Feb. 6-23.

• Ginobili was playing his second game after missing eight straight games with a strained hamstring. He left the game with 9:47 remaining and didn't return as Popovich kept him to a pre-determined 19 minutes.

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