PORTLAND — Those naysayers who don’t believe the Portland Trail Blazers will have much success in a rebuilding season might have it all wrong, at least according to Damian Lillard.
The NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Month had 25 points and seven assists as the Blazers pulled above .500 (13-12) with a 96-93 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night. Eighteen of Lillard’s points came in the second half.
It was Portland’s fifth straight win — the team’s longest streak since February 2011 when they won six in a row.
“It lets us know we’re going in the right direction," Lillard said. “For us to be able to come from four games below .500 and be able to get on a winning streak and get it done, I think it says a lot about where we’re headed."
J.J. Hickson had 19 points and 15 rebounds for his seventh straight double-double, and Nicolas Batum had 13 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. While it is only December, the Blazers are in the thick of the Western Conference race.
“I’m not going to say we’re that good but I think we’re capable of being a playoff team as long as we keep doing what we’re doing," Lillard said.
Sasha Pavolic and Lillard made consecutive 3-pointers as Portland pulled in front 92-85 with 4:02 left. The Suns got to within 94-91 on Marcin Gortat’s layup with 1:24 to go.
After Lillard’s 19-foot, step-back jumper, Jared Dudley had a layup for the Suns to make it 96-93. Phoenix furiously tried to get off a shot in the final seconds, but Goran Dragic missed a 3-pointer, and Shannon Brown missed a short jumper.
Gortat had 18 points and nine rebounds for the Suns, who led by as many as 12 points in the first half. The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for Phoenix.
Portland welcomed back LaMarcus Aldridge; the All-Star forward sprained his left ankle in the final minute of a win over New Orleans last Sunday. He scored 17 points.
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews also started for the Blazers, despite ongoing hip pain, but played only a short time. Matthews came out of the game with 2:11 left in the first quarter and headed for the locker room. He didn’t return, and the Blazers announced after the game that he would not accompany the team to Sacramento for tonight’s game against the Kings.
Former Blazer Sebastian Telfair’s steal led to a pull-up 3-pointer that gave the Suns a 41-35 lead midway through the second quarter. Another former Blazer, Jermaine O’Neal, pushed the lead to 47-35 with a jumper and a pair of free throws to cap a 14-2 Phoenix run.
Luis Scola’s 19-foot jumper made it 53-44 for the Suns at the break, but Portland jumped out in the second half and got as close as 63-62 after a long jumper from Lillard.
The Suns answered with a 10-1 run to make it 73-63, but the Blazers again caught up. Lillard’s hook shot tied it with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
Hickson’s dunk and free throw to open the fourth quarter gave the Blazers a 78-75 lead. Ronnie Price’s layup gave the Blazers an 84-83 edge with 6:28 left, and Lillard added a pair of free throws.
O’Neal is impressed by Lillard, who had 24 points against the Suns earlier this season.
“It’s funny because you can’t read his face. Sometimes the light which is the glare of being a rookie in the NBA becomes so bright that you see it affect some of the guys emotionally or physically," O’Neal said. “He does a great job keeping his demeanor. He loves the big shot, obviously, he took some big ones. I think he’s definitely the future of this team."
Also on Saturday:
OAKLAND, Calif. — Kobe Bryant had 34 points and 10 rebounds, Steve Nash finished with 12 points and nine assists in his first game in almost two months, and Los Angeles Lakers rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Golden State in overtime.
MIAMI — LeBron James scored 30 points, Dwyane Wade added 21 points and seven assists, and Miami rode the strength of a big third-quarter run to beat Utah.
ATLANTA — Al Horford had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and every Atlanta starter scored in double figures as the Hawks routed Chicago to snap a two-game losing streak.
WASHINGTON — Charlie Villanueva scored 19 points, Rodney Stuckey added 18, and Detroit earned its second win in two nights over Washington.
HOUSTON — James Harden scored 31 points with eight assists, and Houston earned its third straight win by topping Memphis.
NEW ORLEANS — David West scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and Indiana overcame a 22-point deficit to hand New Orleans its 11th straight loss.
MILWAUKEE — Dion Waiters scored 18 points and Cleveland snapped a six-game losing streak by beating Milwaukee.
DENVER — Kosta Koufos scored a season-high 16 points, and Kenneth Faried and Andre Iguodala added 15 points apiece as Denver beat Charlotte and sent the Bobcats to their 15th consecutive loss.