PORTLAND — Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard was seen dancing in Portland’s locker room prior to Saturday night’s game versus the Jazz. He didn’t bother to stop once the game started. In fact, he even picked up the tempo.
The 6-3 point guard out of Weber State scored 26 points in the first quarter, tying his own franchise record for most points in a quarter, before finishing with a new franchise best in scoring with 59 points to lead the Trail Blazers to a 101-86 victory versus the Jazz in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,865 at the Moda Center.
“Damian was phenomenal, it was our best defensive game of the year and we played our asses off,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts.
With the win, the Trail Blazers improve to 40-40 overall and are 24-15 at home this season. More importantly, the victory extends Portland’s lead over the Denver Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference to 1.5 games. The Trail Blazers’ “magic number” (Portland wins plus Denver losses) is now one, meaning if the Nuggets lose to the Thunder in Denver Sunday night, Portland will clinch a playoff spot for the fourth-consecutive season.
After going down 12-2 in the first quarter to the Timberwolves on Thursday and being blown out by the Jazz in Utah on Tuesday, the Trail Blazers had plenty of incentive to get off to a good start Saturday night. Perhaps sensing that, Lillard took it upon himself make sure that if there was a team that was going to have to climb out of an early hole, it was going to be the other guys.
I knew coming into the game that I was going to come out and I was going attack them, just knowing how important the game was,” said Lillard. “I decided early that I’m going to come out here and impose my will on them and see how it goes. I saw the ball go in, I was able to get rolling in the first quarter and usually if I have a big quarter, I kind of take a step back and move the ball and things like that. But tonight, I never did.”
The fifth-year guard made his first shot, a driving floater in the lane, with 10:42 to play in the first quarter, and didn’t look back from there, scoring 27 points in the next seven minutes to all by carry the Trail Blazers to a 34-20 lead going into the second quarter.
Lillard would go scoreless in the second quarter, which not surprisingly coincided with the Jazz getting back into the game. Utah outscored Portland 22-14 in the second quarter to cut Portland’s lead to 48-42 by the halftime intermission.
But Lillard would pick right back up in the third, going 6-of-12 from the field, 3-of-5 from three and 4-of-4 from the line for 19 points in the quarter. Lillard’s shooting once again helped the Trail Blazers take control, and in this case, a 17-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
With Utah couldn’t get any closer than within 12 points in the fourth, making that was left to decide in the final six minutes was whether Lillard would set a new career-high after entering the quarter with 49 points. He would surpass his career high on a pair of free throws with 2:20 to play. Then in fitting fashion, he surpassed the franchise high of 54 points set by Damon Stoudamire on a stepback three with 1:49 to play. After the three, Lillard tapped his wrist to remind everyone in the arena of what time it was, not that any of them could forget.
“I’ve felt like this a few times, but like I said, even when I do, I take a step back instead of just kind of pressing for the whole game,” said Lillard. “Tonight, I pressed for the whole game and that’s why I ended up with the most points I ever had.”
Lillard finished with 59 points on 18-of-34 shooting from the field, 9-of-14 shooting from three and 14-of-16 shooting from the line to go with six rebounds and five assists in 41 minutes. He is now the only player in franchise history with three games of at least 50 points.
His nine three-pointers matched his own franchise record for threes in a game while his 18 made field goals is a new career high.
“He was fantastic, sensational,” said CJ McCollum. “Right at the perfect time, we needed him to score every basket. He played well, he distributed the ball when they dug in. Should of had 60, he knows it. I told him we’re going to shoot some free throws tomorrow, free throw game tomorrow. He was huge, timely shots, got to the basket, I think he was the only one on our team that got to the free throw line. He was aggressive, played at an elite, elite level.”
Only one other Trail Blazer, Maurice Harkless, scored in double figures, finishing with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Meyers Leonard, who started at center, finished with nine points and five rebounds in 30 minutes. Al-Farouq Aminu, who came off the bench Saturday after starting the last two games, added 12 rebounds.
But while Lillard handed the scoring, the rest of the roster did their fair share of defending, holding the Jazz to under 90 points after putting up 106 less than a week ago in the previous meeting in Salt Lake City.
“I really thought the lineup with Moe, Chief, Evan and Noah – our switching was really effective,” said Stotts. “We were locked in on assignments. We didn’t give up too many easy ones. We were rebounding the ball really well. thought that group was really good. Evan and Moe particularly did a nice job with Hayward. Noah did a really good job rebounding the ball. Then when Meyers was in with Gobert, I thought he zoned up off of Gobert well.”
And to cap off the performance, the Trail Blazers finished the game with just three turnovers, which matched the franchise record.
Gordon Hayward led the Jazz with 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Rudy Gobert finished with a double-double of 13 points, 11 rebounds in 30 minutes. Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson combined to score 24 off the bench.
Next up, the Trail Blazers continue their season-ending homestand by hosting the San Antonio Spurs Monday night at the Moda Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 pm.