Steve Blake was smiling. Juan Dixon playfully patted Zach Randolph on the back of his head. Viktor Khryapa followed an easy dunk with an even easier laugh.
Midway through the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors, it was the happiest that the Portland Trail Blazers had looked since the NBA year began.
But by the fourth, the smiles had reverted back to tightly clenched jaws. Portland had watched a 17 point lead disappear in seven minutes. The Raptors, led by standout play from Chris Bosh (22 points, nine rebounds) and Jalen Rose (23 points), had climbed back into the game just as the Blazers were about to sew up the stitching on their season-high fourth straight win.
Two weeks ago, Portland would have blown it. Their heads would have hung, the life would have drained out for the night and the Blazers would have watched as another close one slipped away.
But this time, playing with confidence and poise as the seconds ticked down to double zero, they didn’t. Carried by Khryapa’s outstanding all-around game (18 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and two steals), the Blazers held on for a 96-94 nail biter. Randolph added a team-high 22 points with eight boards and seven assists. Juan Dixon contributed 15. And Travis Outlaw had his best game in a month with 13 points, nearly all on long range twos.
“Khryapa did a nice job tonight,” said head coach Nate McMillan. “Toronto did a lot of double-teaming on Zach and Viktor was able to exploit it. Zach did a good job of kicking it out. And Viktor hit his shots.”
Center Joel Pryzbilla echoed his coach’s comments.
“Anytime you can win four straight, it’s a great feeling,” Pryzbilla said. “We’ve just got to keep playing like this, keep this type of intensity up. And you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Zach. He’s our go-to guy and he did a wonderful job of getting the ball to the open man.”
Despite losing the lead in the fourth quarter, the Blazers played what was perhaps their best overall offensive game of the year. Portland’s execution of its half-court offense against Toronto was often picture perfect. The Blazers had 28 assists in the first three quarters of the game alone, as Steve Blake, Juan Dixon and Randolph consistently found the open man.
The victory now pushes Portland’s mark to 14-24 on the season.