Blazers moving in right direction as playoffs approach

Portland, Ore. -- (Portland Tribune) Don't look now, but it appears as if the Trail Blazers might be coming together at just the right time.

Portland's trending in the right direction continued with its easier-than-it-sounds 105-98 victory over Memphis Sunday night at the Moda, Center.

It was the third straight victory for the Blazers (48-27), who strengthened their hold on the No. 5 position in the NBA's Western Conference playoff race. Portland leads No. 6 Golden State -- which fell to the New York Knicks at home Sunday night -- by two games.

"Not a bad day at the office," said Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, figuratively whistling as he sauntered to the showers after a 28-point performance.

Portland shot .520 from the field, displayed solid defense through most of the game and continued the forceful play it had showed in victories over Atlanta and Chicago to end the team's recent five-game road trip.

"We've successively ratcheted it up these last three games," said center Robin Lopez, who contributed nine points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. "Hopefully, that will continue going forward, because it's just going to get more intense."

The Grizzlies (43-30) had beaten Portland handily in the teams' previous two meetings and entered Sunday night hoping to pick up ground in the tight back end of the West playoff hunt. The Blazers established themselves early, though, using a 16-4 run to start the second quarter to seize a 41-29 lead. They were in front 57-45 at the half and 91-70 early in the fourth quarter.

Memphis made a belated run, closing to within 103-98 with 6.9 seconds to go. It was too little, too late.

"I like how we're playing," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I liked our mindset tonight. I liked our focus from beginning to end. Except for a few loose possessions, we were locked in at both ends of the court."

Aldridge was the leader, sinking 10 of 20 shots from the field and 8 of 8 at the foul line. It was his third game after missing the previous seven with a sore back. It's no coincidence the Blazers have rebounded from an eight-losses-in-11-games streak with the return of their All-Star power forward.

"L.A. coming back has brought us back to what we do, and how we do it," said guard Mo Williams, who scored 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting for the Blazers.

"He's their horse," said Zach Randolph, who led Memphis with 21 points. "He's what makes them go. Any time you have LaMarcus, your best player, out there, it makes a difference."

Said Stotts: "L.A. being back makes a big difference for everybody. ... having him back has reinvigorated some people."

Though the Blazers were only 5 for 15 from 3-point range, they got plenty of open scoring opportunities from around the perimeter, many of them because of Memphis' focus defending Aldridge.

"At any point and time, we can go to the block," said Wesley Matthews, who contributed 15 points and five assists. "He's going to make something happen. Or he might command a double-team, so we get an open shot on the back side. If they play him one-on-one, we like those odds."

Aldridge took a tumble in the final minute when tripped by Memphis' Marc Gasol after a shot attempt. Aldridge looked gimpy as he ran downcourt but stayed in the game.

"Hit me right on the sore spot," Aldridge said afterward. "It hurt. It's why I iced it for a long time after the game."

Everything about Sunday's result was a good sign for the Blazers, at just the right time.

"It's not about a statement game, but I like more the process of how we've gotten better the last three games," Stotts said.

"We're having fun," said Nicolas Batum, who contributed 10 points, six assists and five rebounds. "Now it's time to win more games. The playoffs are in two weeks. We have to be ready. Just seven games left. That's it."

"I like where we're headed," Matthews said. "We're not content by any means, but our focus is where it needs to be. We're finally playing with that urgency. We came off two good wins, and we came out and took care of business tonight.

"We have L.A. back. That's what makes us a top team in the West, that guy right there. Guys are stepping it up. Our energy is back."

NOTES: Portland's next action is Tuesday night against the L.A. Lakers at Staples Center. ... Williams and Thomas Robinson provided a big lift off the bench for Portland, combining to score 25 points on 11-for-13 shooting -- 9 for 9 in the first half. Williams has made 17 of 27 shots and scored 43 points in the last three games. "All year long, when he's scored, that's been a bonus for us," Stotts said. "He leads the league in assists off the bench. He's had three good games in a row, but he's been pretty good all year for us." ... Matthews was 5 for 5 at the free-throw line, running his streak of consecutive makes to 36. That ranks sixth for the Blazers over the last 10 years, the best being Damon Stoudamire's 57 in a row in 2005. ... Aldridge was 10 for 20 from the field, shooting 50 percent in a complete game for the first time since Feb. 12. ... Portland's Damian Lillard scored all 13 of his points in the second half. ... It was the most points scored against the Grizzlies in the month of March. ... The Blazers have five of seven remaining games at home, with one-game trips to face the Lakers and Utah.

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basketball, Oregon, Portland, Portland Trail Blazers, sports

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