Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers' all-star point guard, spotted a rare sliver of space in the swarming Washington Wizards defense, put his head down and attacked the basket with his left hand. He was seeking to ignite his floundering squad, overmatched for the previous 28 minutes, however he could. Then Wizards center Marcin Gortat suddenly surfaced and began a sensational sequence indicative of how the Wizards' 105-97 victory went for three-plus quarters Monday night at Verizon Center.
Gortat swatted Lillard’s layup attempt aside. Paul Pierce corralled the rebound and daringly hoisted an outlet pass to a streaking Nene, running a fly route like a 6-11 wide receiver. The Brazilian big man is more familiar with futbol than football, but he caught the pass in stride anyway, displaying his nifty footwork, and completed the play with a ferocious reverse one-handed dunk.
The flush increased the Wizards' lead to 25 points. They would need every bit of the cushion. With Nene back from a two-game absence, Washington (39-28) pounced on the Trail Blazers, but the Wizards, who overcame a 21-point second-half deficit against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, narrowly evaded a disastrous second-half collapse after Portland shrunk the lead to three points in the fourth quarter.
The triumph was the Wizards’ first against a team over .500 not resting players since mid-January and extended their winning streak to four games — their longest since mid-December. Washington, which was without Kris Humphries and Garrett Temple, halted Portland’s three-game run before embarking on a four-game swing out west that begins Wednesday against the Utah Jazz.
“It feels good to get a quality win,” said Pierce, who compiled 16 points and five rebounds. “We feel like we’ve been playing well as of lately. We feel like we’ve turned the corner at this point in the season on both ends of the court. It’s inspiring, especially when we have a big west coast trip coming up.”
The Trail Blazers (44-21), playing the second game of a back-to-back after defeating the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, didn’t threaten Washington until the third quarter, when they suddenly couldn’t miss. After shooting an uncharacteristic 34.8 percent from the floor and 15.4 percent from three-point range in the first half, the Trail Blazers shot 68.8 percent from the floor and made 5 of 7 threes in the third quarter to outscore Washington 34-21.
A C.J. McCollum pull-up jumper shrunk the Wizards’ advantage to three points three minutes into the fourth period and forced Wizards Coach Randy Wittman to call a timeout. Frustration was evident. Drew Gooden III whipped his headband to the floor. Another blown double-digit lead against the Trail Blazers, which happened in Portland in a loss in January, seemed imminent.
“I told everybody at the time, ‘Hey, we got to keep taking those good looks,’” recalled Wittman, whose team committed only seven turnovers but shot 61.5 percent from the free throw line. ‘”They’re going to go in.’”
A 5-0 Wizards run — featuring a three-pointer from Bradley Beal and a dunk from Gortat — immediately followed, and the Trail Blazers didn’t come any closer than four points the rest of the way. Up six with just over two minutes remaining, Pierce provided the back-breaking blow, draining a corner three on a pass from John Wall in transition to send the arena into a frenzy. Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts worsened the impact by earning a technical foul that resulted in a Beal free throw.
“We have to do a better job at closing quarters but we knew they were a team that shoots a lot of threes and were going to get going at some point,” Wall said. “It just happened at the time when we started missing shots.”
All-star LaMarcus Aldridge, playing with a torn ligament in his left thumb, netted a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds for Portland, but Lillard was held to 14 points on 5-of-18 shooting.
All five Wizards starters reached double figures in points, led by Beal who registered his best performance since coming back from an eight-game absence because of a fibula injury. The third-year guard had 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 4 of 4 from three, to go with seven assists.
“I felt confident coming in and I owed it to my teammates,” Beal said. “I know I haven’t been playing well since I came back.”
But Wall was the catalyst once again and immediately continued his recent dynamic play, which has sparked Washington’s recent turnaround. Pushing the ball whenever possible, Wall wreaked havoc in transition. He attacked the rim for his own shot. He penetrated to draw defenders and pass to others. He pulled up for midrange jumpers. By the end of the first quarter he had nine points, three rebounds and three assists.
He finished with 21 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds and one scare in 41 minutes. With the Wizards clinging to a seven-point lead with under a minute remaining, Wall catapulted several rows into the stands to save a ball from going out of bounds with a slick behind-the-back toss. The Trail Blazers eventually scored on the possession, but he emerged unscathed.
“That’s my instincts. I just play hard,” said Wall, who fell one rebound shy of his first triple-double of the season. “[Teammates] told me not to go for that one, but I’m just trying to win a game. That’s how hard I play.”
Box score: Wizards 105, Trail Blazers 97
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