The Portland Trail Blazers were set with the seemingly obvious task of defeating the worst team in the league Saturday - without its two best players, even - but unlike the very forgettable January blowout at the Wells Fargo Center, the Blazers were able to take care of business and survive the lowly Philadelphia 76ers 108-105 at the Moda Center, to improve to 38-36 and remain 1 1/2 games ahead of the Houston Rockets for the sixth seed in the Western Conference standings.
The Blazers were led by CJ McCollum (25 points, 5 assists, 5 steals), a career-high tying night from Al-Farouq Aminu (20 points, 8 rebounds) and Damian Lillard (16 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds).
The Sixers were led by Ish Smith (17 points, 14 assists), Robert Covington (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Hollins Thompson (17 points, 7 rebounds) as the Sixers missed the services of its young frontcourt duo of Nerlens Noel and rookie Jahlil Okafor.
The Sixers stuck with Portland for much of the first, but Portland managed to claim the early lead and do just enough to stave Philadelphia off. Maurice Harkless delivered another solid opening shift scoring 9 of his 16 points on the night, most in the familiar cut-to-the-rack variety, and added an emphatic block on Richaun Holmes late in the quarter for good measure, looking comfortable in the new starting role. His three gave Portland a 19-12 lead, and Aminu's and-1 layup pushed the advantage to 10, but a late surge from Holmes and TJ McConnell brought Philadelphia back within just four heading into the second.
End of First: Portland 31, Philadelphia 27
The Blazer defense started to come alive - holding the Sixers to 22 points in the period as Noah Vonleh restored a double-digit lead early on his driving hook shot. Gerald Henderson continued to be a punch off the bench, knocking down contested mid-range jumpers for six points during that run, and McCollum added his own personal 8-0 run to extend the lead to eleven at 49-38.
But again Philadelphia would claw its way back behind six points from Isaiah Canaan and a big three from Nik Stauskas in the final minute to stay just within reach heading into the locker room.
Halftime: Portland 57, Philadelphia 49
After a quiet opening half, Lillard awoke during the third, scoring seven points as the Blazers pushed its lead as large as 16 on his driving layup early in the quarter. Aminu connected on his third three of the evening, and Harkless continued to impress, converting an and-1 layup which pushed the lead to 13 with just a few minutes remaining. Covington, and 37 year-old veteran Elton Brand knocked down shots to help keep the Sixers from getting too far away, but you could get the feeling the game was already getting out of reach.
End of Third: Portland 86, Philadelphia 74
But that just wouldn't be the case.
Portland went ice-cold during the fourth and the Sixers chipped away to craw back even, and for a point even take the lead during the final minutes on Thompson's three as the Blazers threatened perhaps blowing perhaps its most embarrassing lead of the season - much to the malign of the Moda Center crowd.
Order was restored temporarily by a McCollum layup and a three by Lillard to lead by four in the final minutes, but Thompson drilled yet another three and Smith nailed a jumper on the next possession to tie the game at 105 with just 24 seconds to go.
McCollum received the inbounds pass and at first looked to be trapped by two defenders near the top of the key, but then somehow slipped free and had a straight line to the rim where he converted an and-1 layup as Covington failed to recover in time. Portland by three.
With just seven seconds and no timeouts remaining for the Sixers, Terry Stotts opted to to foul Jerami Grant immediately on the ensuing inbound and send him to the free throw line, preventing an attempt at a three. Grant missed both free throws, essentially icing the contest, albeit a lot closer than perhaps the Blazers had hoped.
Monday night is Blazer's Edge Night(!) as the Trail Blazers will host the Sacramento Kings - and perhaps more importantly, thousands of local kids - 7 pm at the Moda Center. Stay tuned to Blazer's Edge tonight, for extended analysis of this game from Dave Deckard.
-- Ryan Rosback | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter