DENVER — An easy night turned into a grinder, but the Portland Trail Blazers will take what they can get.
All that matters is they won again without their leading scorer.
Guard Damian Lillard tallied 31 points and nine assists, center Robin Lopez had 12 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks and Portland beat the Denver Nuggets 100-95 on Tuesday night.
Forward Nicolas Batum had 16 points, including five crucial points down the stretch to help the Blazers extend their win streak to three without forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
“We were able to find a way to win,” Lillard said. “The game was kind of going our way, we were executing and flying around. We kind of relaxed because I guess we thought it was easy and they found a way back into the game.”
Forward J.J. Hickson had a career-high 25 rebounds, including an NBA season-high 15 offensive boards, to go with 16 points. It was a big difference from Sunday when he scored just one point against Sacramento.
“I felt like I was due for an OK game,” Hickson said. “Twenty-five boards is exciting but the win would have been more exciting.”
Guard Randy Foye scored 17 points for Denver, which has dropped three in a row and eight of its last nine.
Lillard has stepped up his game in the absence of Aldridge. The point guard is averaging 30 points and eight assists in four games without the team’s leading scorer.
Lillard was on target Tuesday, leading the Blazers to their third win over the Nuggets this season after nearly blowing an 18-point lead.
“Obviously I’ve had to be a little more aggressive and up my game with (Aldridge) out, but we’ve had guys stepping up consistently,” Lillard said. “Everybody’s raised their level of play with him out.”
The Blazers lost another big man when forward Thomas Robinson left the game in the third quarter with a left leg injury. The team did not specify the nature of the injury but Robinson had his left knee wrapped in ice in the locker room after the game.
Denver shuffled its lineup in hopes of getting a spark. The Nuggets are mired in their worst stretch since losing 11 of 12 just prior to George Karl taking over in January 2005, so current coach Brian Shaw moved 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov into the starting lineup in place of the 6-9 Hickson.
Instead of bemoaning the move, Hickson had a career night against his former team.
“I told J.J., ‘Don’t let coming off the bench affect you just come out and respond by playing hard,'” Foye said. “He bounced back and worked hard. He did a great job and was a big part on the comeback.”
The move did help both players put up better numbers — Mozgov had 14 points — but it did not result in a win. The Nuggets allowed 100 points for the 18th time in the last 20 games despite a strong defensive fourth quarter in which they held the Blazers to 4 of 21 shooting in the period.
Portland missed 13 of their first 15 shots to start the fourth, allowing Denver to rally. Twice they got with two points after trailing by nearly 20.
Four Portland free throws made it a 90-86 but forward Kenneth Faried hit two straight shots in the lane to make it 90-88.
“It was a difficult game. We did a lot of good things, made some big plays defensively to win it at the end,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “The offense kind of shut down in the fourth quarter but our defense was solid. To get a win like this in Denver is something we need to do.”
Lopez had four of his blocks in the fourth to help keep the Blazers in front.
“I wasn’t out there chasing stats, I was out there playing basketball,” he said.
Even with Aldridge in street clothes, Denver could not stop the Blazers for the first three quarters.
After guard Aaron Brooks’ jumper made it a 52-47, Portland scored 11 of the next 13 points to go up by 14. When Denver got within 10, Lillard took over.
Lillard hit a pair of driving, spinning layups to get going, and then he nailed consecutive 3-pointers to put the Nuggets on their heels. When he took a seat late in the third quarter, he scored 12 points in a four-minute span and gave the Blazers a 79-61 lead.
“We built a good lead, and for three quarters it was really good,” Stotts said.
NOTES: Portland F LaMarcus Aldridge (strained left groin) missed his fourth straight game. He leads the team in scoring (23.9 points) and rebounding (11.4) this season. … Nuggets G Ty Lawson missed his seventh straight game with a fractured rib on his left side. … Portland F Thomas Robinson became the only player in the NBA this season to have 18 rebounds, seven offensive, coming off the bench. He accomplished the feat Sunday against Minnesota. … Nuggets F/C J.J. Hickson came off the bench for just the fourth time in 56 games this season. … The Nuggets will honor the 1993-94 team at halftime of their game March 17. That team became the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in NBA playoff history when it rallied to beat Seattle in five games.
Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair
If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.
Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.
Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”
Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.
Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?
“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”
The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.
“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”
Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.
“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”
Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.
“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.
Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.
“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.
Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.
Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.
NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.
Spurs’ Ginobili sprains ankle
SAN ANTONIO — Guard Manu Ginobili was helped off the floor late in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday due to a sprained right ankle.
Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points. He was immediately was led to the locker room, and he did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court. He did not return to the game.
In 19 minutes during the Spurs’ 123-97 win over the Timberwolves, Ginobili scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and leading him to play limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return
Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.
Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.
“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”
Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.
“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”
In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.
He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.
Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.
–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.
“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”
Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.
“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.
–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.
Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.
–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.
Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.
In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.
–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.
Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.