Getting to 50 wins was an important first step for the young Portland Trail Blazers ahead of the postseason.
They can take another one with consecutive victories against elite opponents Friday night when they host the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers.
The Trail Blazers (50-28) are tied with San Antonio for fourth in the West, and are one-half game behind Houston as the teams vie for home-court advantage for at least the first round. Portland wrapped up a four-game road trip with three victories after a 95-83 win over the Spurs on Wednesday, erasing an early 19-point deficit for its first win in San Antonio since 2002.
“We won at one of the toughest teams in the league, in April, and they needed a win,” said Blazers guard Brandon Roy, who scored 26 points. “So we got to use it if we want it to be something special.”
Roy is the linchpin of coach Nate McMillan’s nine-man rotation as Portland prepares for its first playoff appearance since 2003. No one in that rotation is older than Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake—both 29—and 24-year-old forward LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as a go-to player in the low post, averaging 23.6 points on 57.8 percent shooting in his last seven games, helping the Blazers win six.
“It was a grind and that’s what the playoffs are going to be about,” McMillan told the Blazers’ official Web site. “You have to play hard, smart and together and we got that from our guys.”
Roy has totaled 22.7 points and 5.6 assists per game in Portland’s recent surge, making 50.4 percent of his shots. He also has played well at home versus the Lakers, averaging 23.3 points while helping the Blazers win all three games he’s played against them at the Rose Garden.
The Lakers (63-16) won’t be lacking any confidence either after dispatching the West’s No. 2 team - a Denver squad that entered Staples Center on an eight-game winning streak - with ease Thursday in a 116-102 romp for their fifth straight victory. Los Angeles moved within one-half game of Cleveland, and the Lakers hold the tiebreaker over the Cavaliers for the NBA’s best overall record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Kobe Bryant scored 33 points, but the bigger news was the return of center Andrew Bynum, who had 16 on 7-of-11 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 21 minutes in his first action since tearing an MCL in his knee on Jan. 31 after a collision with Bryant.
“It feels great to be back and be playing man, seriously. My teammates have been waiting,” said Bynum, who rated himself a B to B-plus for his first game back. “They fed me the ball a little bit and got me really comfortable out there.”
The biggest beneficiary of Bynum’s return may be fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol, who had 27 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end—also a career-best. As Bynum found his rhythm offensively, scoring 13 second-half points, the pair created matchup problems as the Lakers outscored the Nuggets 60-46.
“We have two 7-footers out there that can rebound,” Gasol said. “I was able to take advantage that he was a little off on his rhythm and I was able to go after the ball because he attracted two defenders. It was positive for me because it opened up my lane and allowed me to go after rebounds.”
Gasol has averaged 21.0 points and 11.2 rebounds during the Lakers’ five-game win streak.
The home team has won all three games this season, with Roy scoring 27 in Portland’s 111-94 rout on March 9 in the most recent contest. Bryant, who has 23,756 points and is one shy of passing Charles Barkley for 17th on the all-time list, scored 26 in that loss but shot 11 of 29.