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Lillard, McCollum lead Trail Blazers in rout of Suns

Lillard, McCollum lead Trail Blazers in rout of Suns
Published On: Sun, Apr 02
Apr 23, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and guard C.J. McCollum (3) congratulate each other after a 96-88 win over Los Angeles Clippers in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The new-look -- and actually old-look -- Portland Trail Blazers, playing for the first time since losing starting center Jusuf Nurkic to injury, made some adjustments Saturday night that helped them keep winning and moved them closer to clinching a playoff spot.

Damian Lillard, with 31 points, and CJ McCollum, with 29, paced Portland in a 130-117 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Moda Center.

Portland, which lost Nurkic for the rest of the regular season with a broken bone in his right leg, extended its winning streak to a season-high six games.

"It was different," Lillard said, adding that he was "disappointed" to lose Nurkic "because I felt like having him out there made us such a better team."

Lillard said Portland's approach against the Suns reminded him of how the Blazers played before Nurkic's arrival in February via the trade that sent center Mason Plumlee to Denver.

"Tonight was more perimeter-oriented, with a lot more flares and high ball screens and swing (the ball) action, playing to the weak side," Lillard said. "It was a lot more of those types of things we did with 'Mase.' I think it helps that we've had to play this way before. But obviously not having 'Nurk' out there is different, so it's going to be an adjustment."

The Blazers, who spread the court more without Nurkic and relied on different sets and plays, are 14-3 in their past 17 outings, and remained solidly in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.

Portland is 38-38 and 2 1/2 games ahead of Denver (35-40), which did not play Saturday. The Blazers will play four of their remaining six games at home -- and they own the tiebreaker over the Nuggets by virtue of their 3-1 season series edge.

Portland also is at .500 for the first time since being 12-12 after a Dec. 8 victory at Memphis.

Phoenix fell to 22-55 with its 11th loss in a row, the longest active skid in the league.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 31 points. TJ Warren had 25 points and Marquese Chriss added 19 points and 13 rebounds.

All Nurkic had done since his arrival via trade with Denver on Feb. 13 was help turn the Blazers' fortunes around dramatically, providing a spark in confidence, a defensive presence in the middle, a low-post scoring and passing threat, a pick-and-roll weapon and more.

With Nurkic, the Blazers posted the NBA's best March record at 13-3. The 7-footer from Bosnia was averaging 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for Portland.

Meyers Leonard started at center for the Blazers on Saturday and finished with seven points and four rebounds in 21 minutes.

"I feel like I can help us. I see this as an opportunity," said Leonard, who had dinner with Nurkic on Friday night at a local steakhouse. "Nurk obviously has come to Portland and done an incredible job for us. I just have to be solid out there."

Phoenix coach Earl Watson said before the game that, with Nurkic out, he expected to see Lillard and McCollum assert themselves even more and even sooner in the game.

The two Blazer guards did that to some extent. Portland shot out to a 24-6 lead in the first six minutes, with Lillard and McCollum combining for nine points.

The Blazers led 37-21 after one quarter, with McCollum at 10 points and Lillard five, and with Portland shooting 62.5 percent from the field.

Phoenix got out and ran much better in the second quarter and was within 63-53 at halftime. Booker and Chriss each had 13 points in the first half. McCollum had 14.

The Suns cut their deficit to four points early in the fourth quarter, but weren't able to pose a threat the rest of the way. In a span of 2:11, the Blazers rebuilt their lead from four to 18.

"The effort's always good. Our young guys play hard, they play aggressive," Watson said of his team, which is the youngest in the NBA.

Making a game of it in the second half and competing against Lillard and McCollum "was a good game for our young guys to experience," Watson said.

Booker agreed, noting that "it's not many times that rookies get this many minutes or get the start, so us as a young group have to come together and play like we're trying to do something here. ... We've got to get ready for next year, and I think that starts now."

NOTES: The Blazers learned of C Jusuf Nurkic's fractured right fibula after an MRI exam on Friday. "He's disappointed. He feels bad," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He's been in a good place. We've been in a good place." Nurkic won't travel with the team for games Monday at Minnesota and Tuesday at Utah. About all the Blazers can do is wait and see if Nurkic can return for any playoff games. "He'll be re-evaluated in two weeks," Stotts said. ... Suns coach Earl Watson on Gs Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, both from the Kentucky Wildcats: "They have extreme confidence. They're best friends, so they have a unique relationship. Devin has been on a tear all season."

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