HOUSTON — Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard knew the questions even before they were asked, a development that was more a reflection on the events of the past 48 hours and less on his soothsaying abilities.
One night after blowing a double-digit lead in the waning moments of what would become a deflating overtime loss, Portland didn’t wilt when an identical situation unfolded on Sunday night, fighting off the Houston Rockets’ spirited comeback for a 109-98 victory at Toyota Center.
Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum drilled a pull-up 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring to bump the Portland (35-17) lead to 103-96 with 1:26 remaining and stave off the Rockets (35-16) once and for all.
Portland collapsed against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night, and after Houston surged into the lead despite having trailed by 17 points in the third quarter, the Trail Blazers were forced to consider their resolve.
“We were in a similar situation where we had a six- or seven-point lead with two or three minutes left,” said Lillard, who finished with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists. “In my head, and I’m pretty sure everyone else, it was, ‘Here we go again.’
“But this time we managed the time better, executed better. Get some stops and embrace the fact that we didn’t get it done last night and do it tonight. We had great efforts from everybody, top to bottom, that came into the game and that was a huge part of why we were able to win.”
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge scored 24 points while the Trail Blazers’ bench added 37, riding strong performances from guard C.J. McCollum in the first half and center Meyers Leonard in the second. Both recorded 12 points, with McCollum sparking the second-quarter run to the lead while Leonard thrived late to stifle Houston in the fourth.
“Our bench was really solid,” said Leonard, who added six rebounds and a blocked shot. “(Center Chris) Kaman had a couple nice moves in the post. (Guard) Steve (Blake) was big. C.J. in first half really got it going from 3 and had a couple nice drives to the bucket and in the second half I was able to knock some shots down. It was a total team effort.”
Rockets guard James Harden matched his season high with 45 points, one off his career best, and added nine rebounds and eight assists. But aside from reserve forward Josh Smith (16 points, five rebounds, four assists), who matched his career high of four 3-pointers for a second consecutive game, Harden was largely alone in carrying the Rockets.
“We can’t put ourselves in that situation” Harden said of the 65-48 deficit early in the third. “We played really well in the second half and played much harder. Against a good team like Portland, we’ve got to do that for all four quarters.”
McCollum snapped a 35-all tie with a runner at the 8:03 mark of the second quarter before adding a floater, a 3-pointer and a transition layup following a steal. His individual blitz lifted Portland to a 48-37 lead and preceded a 10-3 spurt that bridged the second and third.
Harden got going in the third, recorded half of the Rockets’ 32 points, including nine from the line. Smith hit a 3 that pushed Houston in front 83-81 to open the third, but Portland punished the Rockets with its size as Leonard and center Robin Lopez (14 points) keyed an 11-2 response.
“That was a bit of a problem,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of the Trail Blazers’ big men, “but we had more breakdowns defensively.”
NOTES: Trail Blazers G Damian Lillard was named by NBA commissioner Adam Silver an injury replacement for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game. Lillard replaces Clippers F Blake Griffin, who is sidelined by a staph infection in his right elbow. Lillard, who will make his second All-Star Game appearance, is averaging 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists. … Rockets C Dwight Howard addressed the media for the first time since undergoing a procedure to manage a right knee edema last Wednesday. Howard is expected to be sidelined 6-8 weeks. “I don’t think I was concerned too much from having the procedure,” Howard said. “I just want to be out there playing and, for most of the season, it’s been a struggle for me.”
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