Certainly it was Damian Lillard’s night. The red-hot Portland guard posted his first career triple-double topped by 36 points, but there was much more to the Trail Blazer story Wednesday night.
The oft-maligned Portland bench, led by Gary Trent and Nassir Little, chipped in 13 points in a 41-24 Trail Blazer blitz in the second quarter that turned the game around after an agonizing first five and a half minutes.
The Blazers needed more than two minutes to score their first points of the game and five and a half minutes to make their second field goal, but things got a whole lot better in that second period.
Trent, getting regular minutes in the rotation recently, went 2-2 from three-point range, had two assists and two steals in the quarter -- finishing a plus-16 in that period. Little was also plus-16 and made his only shot.
Lillard had nine in that quarter and Trevor Ariza got six, along with a team-best plus-17 for the quarter.
Ariza’s presence in the starting lineup has made a world of difference for Portland, with not only his added size but his basketball intelligence.
“Somebody like Trevor, who knows the game, you don’t have to tell him multiple times what to do,” said Carmelo Anthony, who moved into 17th place (passing Kevin Garnett) on the all-time NBA scoring list at the 9:14 mark of the second quarter. “He just knows how to play the game.
“He knows how to play off people. For the younger guys, seeing that stuff really helps. You can’t teach it. He just knows.”
Ariza, who made nine of his 13 shots, half of his six threes, and chased James Harden all over the court most of the game, finished with 21 points and more alert plays at both ends of the court than you could count.
He credited his teammates for his ease with fitting into the team’s suddenly very solid starting lineup.
“The players,” he said. “These guys have a very high IQ and are very talented and all I have to do is catch the ball and shoot it, or get the ball and put it in the basket, or rebound and make simple plays.”
Hassan Whiteside also played a big role in this one, as Coach Terry Stotts stayed with his big man even when Houston went to smaller lineups.
“I thought Dame did a nice job of finding him and he was able to finish around the basket,” Stotts said. “Those were some big plays that he made -- the finishes and the ‘and-ones.’ He did a nice job with that.”
Whiteside had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots and a team-high plus-18. And it appeared Harden wanted no part of him at the basket.
“Yeah, that’s my job,” Whiteside said. “I feel like I’m the best at doing it. Just protecting that paint.”
Whiteside pointed to Ariza as a difference-maker.
“He’s the ultimate three-and-D guy,” Whiteside said. “He’s out there playing amazing defense -- doing a great job.”
And suddenly, Lillard is getting enough help to make this team competitive.
Harden finished with 18 points, going 5-18 from the field and 2-8 from long range.
The Trail Blazers meet the Lakers in Staples Center Friday night -- a game that probably no team in the league wanted to play. It's the Lakers' first home game since Kobe Bryant's death.