By Joe Freeman

The Oregonian

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PORTLAND — After they recorded their most impressive victory of the season Friday night, an entertaining and fast-paced 128-122 dismissal of the Toronto Raptors, the Portland Trail Blazers were presented with a postgame surprise.

In the home locker room at the Moda Center, coach Terry Stotts and his staff toted five games balls, passing them out one by one to a surprised group of maligned players who spearheaded a win over the NBA’s best team:

The bench.

“They played extraordinary,” Stotts said. “I was happy for them. It’s been a struggle lately and they had a good rhythm, a lot of good energy, played well together, played with confidence. It’s an understatement that they made the difference in the game.”

For all the things that have ailed the Blazers since Thanksgiving — slow starts, careless defense, shaky road play, inconsistent offense — perhaps nothing has dogged them more than the play of their bench.

Seth Curry had been so bad, he was benched. Zach Collins was a shell of the player who had dominated the first month of the season. Nik Stauskas could not be trusted in the second half of games. Fans were routinely unleashing the not-as-clever-as-they-think “Evan Turnover” quips when discussing Evan Turner. Meyers Leonard was heading back into Stotts’ doghouse.

The bench was the Blazers’ biggest early-season surprise, a fun-to-watch, change-of-pace fivesome that played hard, fast and with flair. As the Blazers streaked to a surprising 10-3 record, the bench was one of the biggest catalysts.

The Blazers have been in a free-fall since Thanksgiving — they had lost eight of 11 heading into Friday’s game — and the bench was leading the descent. When Portland sputtered to slow starts, the second unit could not provide a change of pace to snap the team out of its first-quarter funk. When the Blazers finally started playing well early in games, the bench squandered double-digit leads.

In recent days, Stotts and his staff had been outspoken and relentless in their critique of the second unit’s flaws, a trend that reached a crescendo during halftime of the Blazers’ 92-83 loss at Memphis on Wednesday, when an irritated Stotts told them, flatly, their teammates needed them to play better.

“We’ve had a rough stretch the past couple weeks as a bench unit,” Curry said. “We’ve taken a lot of heat and deservedly so. Guys weren’t playing well and weren’t doing our jobs. We had to look in the mirror and correct it.”

So when Stotts called on Turner, Stauskas, Leonard and Collins to enter the game with 3:27 left in the first quarter against the Raptors — and Curry joined them about a minute later — it was fair to assume a sellout Moda Center crowd was about to watch another meltdown. Instead, fans watched the beginning of a revival.

The bench inherited a 19-17 lead and swiftly turned it into a double-digit edge. With Collins hammering home two-handed dunks and playing superb defense, Stauskas completing highlight-reel reverse layups, Curry diving to the floor for loose balls and Turner unleashing dipsy-doo layups, the Blazers’ bench was a blur of excitement and energy. By the time its first shift was over with 5:16 left in the first half, the second unit had extended the Blazers’ lead to 47-36 and outscored Toronto’s reserves 25-12.

“I remember after the first half, I turned to Evan and I asked him: ‘What is the difference today?’” Stauskas said. “And I think it was really just our energy. We were moving the ball from side to side, we were cutting hard. I think most importantly we were getting stops on the defensive end and kind of able to run out in transition and not have to call as many plays. I think that’s when we’re most effective. The more we can do that, the more effective we can be.”

The second unit proved most effective in the second half — particularly the fourth quarter — when Curry finally broke out of his seasonlong malaise. The Blazers opened the final period with a full five-man bench unit and a slim 91-89 edge.

Five-and-a-half minutes later, they led by 16 points. Curry had his best stretch with the Blazers during the run, swishing two 3-pointers, completing a tough driving bank shot and scoring 10 fourth-quarter points. When Turner tossed a beautiful bounce pass through the heart of the Raptors’ defense to a cutting Collins in the lane, the backup big man completed a monster two-handed dunk and the Blazers led 109-93 with 6:32 left. They held on from there, recording just their second win over a team with a winning record since Nov. 11.

“Our bench pretty much dominated the game,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said. “It was a huge win for us and a huge performance by the bench.”

How huge? The bench players combined to score a season-high 58 points — outscoring the Raptors’ bench by 32 points — and hand out 12 of the Blazers’ 29 assists. It was the fifth time this season that the Blazers’ bench scored 50 or more points, and three of them came over the first eight games, when the Blazers streaked to a 6-2 record.

Curry scored a season-high 13 points while adding two assists and two steals. Turner recorded 12 points, six rebounds, six assists — and just one turnover. Collins finished with 16 points and four rebounds, Stauskas scored 13 points, and Leonard added four points and three rebounds.

It was, of course, just one game. The play of the bench is so vital to this team, such a determining factor in how good the Blazers — now 16-13 — can be this season, it was only fitting that when they finished polishing off the Raptors (23-8), Stotts and his staff handed out those five game balls.

Turner joked it was an “apology” for all the heat the bench had been taking for “giving up leads over the past two weeks.” In reality, it was a reward for a beleaguered group that had scored more points (58) than it had in the previous three games combined (50).

“All five bench guys getting one was a special moment for us,” Curry said of the game balls. “We’ve had a real tough stretch these past few weeks. It just feels good that everybody stayed confident, continued to work hard in practice and on off days and things like that. Everybody put it together. Everybody felt good about what they did tonight as a bench unit.”

Added Leonard: “Every now and then, as a player, affirmation feels good. It was fun. We felt alive. There was just a certain rhythm, flow, confidence — ease — about the game. It was a fun night.”

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