By Tony Jones
| The Salt Lake Tribune
The overwhelming cheers for Damian Lillard stopped midway through the fourth quarter. It was the strongest compliment of the night for the Portland rookie in Utah’s 86-77 win over the Trail Blazers.
With shot after shot in the second half, the Oakland product who made his name as Weber State’s biggest star sliced and diced his way through the Jazz defense. He scored a game-high 26 points and pulled his team close enough down the stretch that Utah fans were more than nervous. The friendly cheering came to a halt.
Lillard’s initial return to Utah to face a Jazz team that coveted him in last summer’s NBA Draft didn’t disappoint. He scored 20 of those points in the second half. He carried his team in large stretches and led a Portland comeback that was thwarted by Utah in the final moments.
"It just felt like a welcome home," Lillard said. "People I have been around for the last four years, coming to support me even though all of them are probably longtime Jazz fans. For them to cheer that loud when I came out, it meant a lot."
For a half, it looked like Utah would defend him perfectly over 48 minutes. Lillard, the sixth pick of the 2012 draft, had six points on 3-for-10 shooting.
He wasn’t setting his teammates up, and it looked as if the only drama of the night would be a guessing game on how much the Jazz’s margin of victory would be.
Then, Lillard made a few shots. It was enough for him to find a rhythm, and like so many of his games this season — he is a Rookie of the Year front-runner — the 6-foot-2 point guard was the best player on his team.
"I don’t really pay too much attention to being a rookie," Lillard said. "I just try to come to work and be productive. I planned on coming in here and trying to help my team on the floor. I’ve been able to do that so far."
There were some struggles, other than the obvious fact Portland lost. Lillard was just 10 of 23 from the field, and he took six more shots than any other player on his team, not great for a point guard. He also turned the ball over four times, including a critical one down the stretch when he lost his dribble trying to split the Jazz defense.
But for so much of the matchup, Lillard showed exactly why he has been a near-All-Star this season. Chalk his homecoming up as yet another chapter.