ATLANTA – The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season and even before Portland demolished Atlanta 113-97 on Saturday, Damian Lillard knew why the team is surging.
“We understand this is when we have to make our push,’’ Lillard said at the team’s practice on Friday. “This is our last opportunity to get to the postseason, that’s why you are seeing the focus we have. This is it. We want to play in the postseason, so this is what it is: You either do it, or you don’t.’’
Behind Lillard, the Blazers lately have the look of a team that is playoff bound.
Lillard continued his torrid post-All-Star pace with 27 points, which included 13 in the game-deciding first quarter, when the Blazers blitzed Atlanta by making their first seven shots while jumping to a 17-3 lead.
The lead ballooned to as many as 23 in the first quarter before the Blazers settled for a 40-18 advantage, and from there on out the closest Atlanta got was 11 early in the fourth.
Lillard is averaging 29.8 points since the All-Star Break, second highest in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (35.1), and his play has spearheaded the Blazers’ 8-4 record since the break, which has included wins in seven of the last nine.
That surge has separated Portland (31-37) from Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans as Denver’s prime contender for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With 14 games left, the Blazers are 1.5 games behind Denver after the Nuggets lost 109-105 at home to Houston.
Heading into the five-game trip finale on Sunday in Miami, Lillard said the Blazers have to adopt an unfamiliar trait:
"I think we need to not be happy about what we've accomplish in the first four games,'' Lillard said. "I think our mentality needs to be greedy.''
The late-season rally has been more than just Lillard, as evidenced by Saturday’s performance, which bordered on spectacular for long stretches and included all five starters scoring in double figures.
CJ McCollum had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists and Jusuf Nurkic continued to be a revelation in Portland, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five blocks. His inside presence on defense and his exuberance and craftiness on the court has been one of the biggest subplots to the resurgence.
Meanwhile, Noah Vonleh continued his solid March with his first double-double of the season (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Allen Crabbe continued to become more of a factor, on Saturday finishing with four three-pointers and 16 points,.
Maurice Harkless made a case to keep his starting small forward position despite Saturday’s return of Evan Turner from a broken hand. Harkless finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists while Turner played 20 minutes in his return and finished with two points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Atlanta (37-32) lost its third straight and played without All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who was a late scratch because of left knee tightness. Ersan Ilyasova started in his place and led the Hawks with 23 points and Dwight Howard had 14 points and 10 rebounds, the 11th consecutive game he has had at least 10 rebounds.
The Blazers jumped to a stunning start, which not surprisingly was led by Lillard. The Blazers made their first seven shots to take a 17-3 lead, and Lillard scored nine of the team’s first 11 points, which included a four-point play.
Portland led by as many as 23 in the first quarter at 35-12 and led 40-18 heading into the second quarter.
Notes: Portland ended a five-game losing streak to Atlanta … Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder had a miserable game, finishing 2-for-14 from the field and finishing with eight points and seven assists.
Next up: Blazers at Miami, 3 p.m. Sunday (CSN)