That was a new one.
In a season filled with unlikely victories, and improbable comebacks, the Trail Blazers found yet another way to win, rallying for a 98-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings Monday at the Moda Center.
All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge left the game early in the second quarter with a left thumb injury and the Blazers overcame a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to pull out another come-behind-win.
"It was just all guts," Blazers wing Will Barton said. "We were down, LA went out, our best player, which is tough, and we just had to regroup. Gain our composure and bring some life to the game. And I feel like everybody who got in the game did that."
It was the Blazers twelfth win of the season when they have by double-digits, but the way things unfolded on Monday night was unique even for a team comfortable in the comeback.
Trailing by nine with just over nine minutes to go to, Portland coach Terry Stotts turned to a lineup he had never used before. The Blazers closed the game with starters Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum playing in a small-ball lineup alongside Thomas Robinson and Will Barton.
"It was a pretty gutsy win. To win a game like that, our defense in the second half was tremendous. The energy was great," Stotts said. "Obviously, Thomas and Will came in and gave us the energy that we needed. Thomas did a really good job on (Demarcus) Cousins in the second half. He competed defensively as far as contesting his post ups and catches and created a lot of steals. We won it with our energy."
The Blazers outscored the Kings 31-18 in the fourth quarter, getting huge efforts from little used reserves Robinson and Barton.
Robinson scored all five of his points in the fourth quarter, while adding two steals and guarding Cousins' down the stretch. Barton finished with six points, providing his usual burst of energy to help fuel Portland's late rally.
The five man group that closed the game hadn't played a single minute together this season and Matthews said he didn't anticipate that particular combination seeing much time together again in the future.
"That was a get the win by any means," Matthews said of the lineup that closed the game. "We had never played that lineup before. I don't know how much that lineup will ever be together, but it was necessary at the time and it got us the win."
Portland finally took the lead with just over two minutes remaining, before Cousins hit two free throws to tie the game at 89 with 1:50 left.
On the ensuing possession, Robinson drew a foul on Cousins away from the ball. It was Cousins' sixth and the Kings star big man was eliminated, giving the Blazers an opportunity to take control in the final 90 seconds.
"That's why I think T-Rob was so huge for us, because he fought (Cousins) down there," Lillard said. "That's a big guy, a physical guy and (Robinson) fought him and made things hard for him. When he fouled out it was him trying to fight through T-Rob fighting with him."
After Cousins' free throws tied the game, Lillard scored a on putback of a Matthews' miss that gave the Blazers the lead for good. Matthews then came away with a steal defending Rudy Gay and Batum corralled the loose ball, got fouled and drained two free throws.
The Blazers led by four, but weren't out of the woods yet. Barton fouled Ben McLemore shooting a three and the Kings' guard nailed all three free throw to trim Portland's lead to one with 45 seconds remaining.
Lillard, whose name has become synonymous with clutch in his three year career, put Portland back up three on the next possession with an emphatic one-handed dunk. It wasn't the long distance bombs that Lillard is famous for in crunch time, but the thunderous slam came when Blazers needed it most.
"I still would raise up and shoot the three if I needed to, but tonight I took what they gave me," Lillard explained. "I knew Jason Thompson was showing really hard on pick and rolls and there'd be an opportunity for me to split. So that's what I did. When I split, the defense was kind of off balance I guess and I was able to get to the rim."
The Kings cut the lead to one on their next possession, but Portland hit enough free throws and mixed in two crucial stops in the final 30 seconds to come away with the victory.
"We just find ways to get it done. It's not always pretty," Lillard said. "It's not always a big shot. Sometimes it's a big stop. We just find ways to get it done no matter what it is. We need a charge, we need a block, anything, we find a way to do that one thing."
The mood in the locker room was that of relief as the Blazers ended their first three game losing streak of the season against the Kings. But there was a somber undertone in the relief with Portland facing the reality of playing an extended stretch without its All-Star power forward in Aldridge.
Aldridge injured his left thumb when he hit in on Cousins' knee, following through on a steal early in the second quarter. He left the game and did not return, getting X-Rays during the game, which came back negative. It's unclear how long he'll be out of action, but if he were to miss significant time it would obviously be a major blow to the Blazers.
"Anytime you lose an All-Star and your best player it's tough," Barton said. "Because he brings so much leadership, scoring, rebounding. He does a lot for us. You can never replace that one person. But I feel like we got the personnel and the guys to step up and get the job done. Anytime he's went out we've kinda pulled it together and found ways to win. I'm confident in our players and our coaching staff that we can do it again."
It might not be Barton or Robinson who are called on each night, but what the Blazers showed Monday -- and have shown all season -- is that they're resilient when it comes to dealing with adversity, be it a double figure deficit or a long-term injury.
And the season will keep rolling whether the Blazers are ready to move on without Aldridge or not.
"I's not like we can not go out there and not play the next game, so guys just have to be ready to step up," Lillard said.
By Mike Richman | The Oregonian/OregonLive | January 20 2015