Trail Blazers hold off furious Lakers rally to continue strong start

Portland’s enormous fourth-quarter lead dwindled to a single
point before the Trail Blazers finally figured out how hold off the
Los Angeles Lakers’ patchwork lineup.

Wesley Matthews thinks the harrowing experience will be good for
the Blazers as they try to cement their spot among the NBA’s
elite.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 27 points and nine rebounds, and Portland
blew most of a 20-point lead before holding on to beat the Lakers
114-108 Sunday night.

Damian Lillard had 26 points and nine assists, and Matthews
scored 17 points for the Blazers, whose 11-game winning streak
ended four days earlier in Phoenix. The Blazers tied their
franchise record with 13 victories in November, and they opened
December with an unlikely nail-biter, surviving despite blowing big
leads in each half.

”We shouldn’t have had to do that,” Matthews said. ”There’s
still a learning curve for us, but it’s a good sign if your lesson
is you have to learn how to play with a lead. It’s better than
having to fight back.”

The Lakers would agree, even though their rally got Staples
Center rocking. Xavier Henry scored a career-high 27 points and
Jodie Meeks added 20 for Los Angeles, which had won five of six to
climb above .500 despite injury woes.

Portland led 94-74 entering the fourth, but promptly failed to
score for nearly six minutes as the Lakers mounted a 24-5 run with
a lineup featuring no point guard and energetic backup center
Robert Sacre, who had career highs of 12 points and seven
rebounds.

”We have guys down right now, but we can’t do anything about
that,” said Henry, who surpassed his previous career high set
earlier this season. ”The guys we do have can still give any team
a run for its money.”

Portland returned from its holiday break with its first road
victory over the Lakers in seven tries since April 11, 2010, but
only after a little drama. The Blazers blew a 17-point lead in the
first half, but thought they had taken control with a 41-point
third quarter – their biggest period of the season.

Los Angeles cut Portland’s lead to 99-98 on Shawne Williams’
tip-in with 3:44 to play, but Lillard hit a 3-pointer with 2:54
left, and Matthews added another with 1:20 to play. Los Angeles
kept it close, but the Blazers hit five of their six free throws in
the final 23 seconds.

”We need to stay consistent,” Lillard said. ”When things are
going well, we tend to ease up instead of tightening up and putting
teams away. Once teams get fired up and get back in the game, our
intensity rises again. We have to find a way to keep it at that
high level.”

The Lakers were left with only nine or 10 healthy players – and
one point guard – when Jordan Farmar limped to the locker room in
the first quarter, straining his left hamstring shortly after
checking in to the game. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash still haven’t
returned to uniform, and center Chris Kaman – who recently
recovered from a back injury – dressed but didn’t play.

Pau Gasol, who missed Saturday’s practice to deal with nagging
injury issues, missed nine of his 10 shots in the first half before
finishing with six points on 3-of-15 shooting. He plans to have an
MRI on his sore ankle Monday.

But the Lakers’ league-leading bench had another big game led by
Henry, Sacre and Nick Young, who scored 17 points.

”That’s what this team is all about – you never know who’s
going to come out and produce,” Sacre said. ”That’s the whole
essence of this team. We’re all about one another, and we want each
other to succeed.”

The Lakers hoped to play aggressively with the next four days
off to rest, but instead got off to a horrific start. Portland took
an 11-0 lead in the first four minutes as Los Angeles missed its
first eight shots, stretching the margin to 21-4 before many fans
had settled in their seats.

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni yanked four of his starters, and they
gradually got back in it with a tying 19-6 run capped by Meeks’
3-pointer midway through the second quarter.

Lillard scored 11 points in the third quarter as Portland made
17 of its 24 shots while taking command. Los Angeles then scored 10
straight points to open the fourth, and the Blazers didn’t get a
field goal until 5:31 remained.

Notes: Lillard converted a four-point play early
in the second quarter, and Henry also did it midway through the
fourth quarter. … D’Antoni said Nash will be at practice on
Tuesday after a trip to Vancouver for further rehab on his nerve
root irritation. There’s no timetable for the return of the
two-time MVP point guard – or Bryant, who also will be in practice
this week. D’Antoni declined to speculate whether Bryant could make
his season debut when the Lakers visit Sacramento on Friday. …
Williams and Johnson both fouled out in the fourth quarter for Los
Angeles.