Nets-Trail Blazers Preview
Damian Lillard has been nearly unstoppable during the Portland Trail Blazers' midseason tear, though the turnaround hasn't completely been a one-man show.
The NBA's hottest team has a chance to earn a season-high sixth straight win and further its playoff case Tuesday night against the visiting Brooklyn Nets.
Lillard has been on a mission since his early January return from plantar fasciitis, and his team has as well during a 14-3 stretch that's moved Portland (29-27) within a half-game of sixth place in the Western Conference.
A perceived All-Star snub has only increased that determination, as the Blazers proved with Friday's 137-105 rout of league-leading Golden State behind a career-high 51 points from their standout guard.
Portland maintained its focus Sunday against surging Utah, rallying from a 13-point second-half deficit to record a 115-111 victory for its 10th win in 11 games.
Lillard finished with 30 points to become the first Blazer since Clyde Drexler in 1991 to reach that number in four straight, while C.J. McCollum capped a 31-point night with two game-sealing free throws in the final seconds. The backcourt duo combined for five 3-pointers during a 15-1 third-quarter run that got Portland back in it.
''If one gets going, a team can load up on him,'' Lillard said. ''(Both of us) kind of kept them off balance.''
Maurice Harkless' recent production has made the Trail Blazers, averaging 120.0 points over their past four, even tougher to defend. Out of the rotation at the start of February, the forward has shot 63.0 percent over five consecutive double-digit scoring efforts.
''He's been huge,'' Lillard said of Harkless, who added 17 points against Utah. ''He's changing every game for us.''
Lillard's scoring binge seems to have a good chance of continuing. He's averaged 32.3 points and shot 55.6 percent from 3-point range in the last three meetings with Brooklyn (15-41), among the NBA's worst teams in field-goal percentage defense (47.0).
The Blazers shot 50.5 percent in a 116-104 win at Barclays Center on Jan. 15, with Lillard scoring 14 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter.
After splitting their last four at home, the Nets embark on a season-high nine-game trip that runs through March 11. They've dropped six straight on road, are 4-19 as the visitor this season and have lost 16 of 19 in Portland.
The Nets will likely need a proficient offensive performance to end those struggles, as they've lost 21 straight when scoring under 100 points since a 94-91 win over Phoenix on Dec. 1. That streak was extended with Sunday's 104-96 defeat to Charlotte.
Brooklyn was able to trim a 15-point deficit to four with 4:42 left before the Hornets used a 9-0 run to pull away.
“When we started to get aggressive on defense, things started to change for us,” interim coach Tony Brown said. “That got us back in the ball game in the second half, but offensively we weren't really in sync. We just didn't make enough plays on offense to get back in the game and take the lead.”
The Nets finished 5 of 22 on 3-point tries after hitting 50.5 percent over their previous five games. Bojan Bogdanovic was 15 of 23 during that stretch but was 1 of 9 from the field for three points against Charlotte.
Brooklyn should be able to rely on Brook Lopez, who had 25 points in the last matchup and is averaging 26.5 in his past four against Portland.