The Portland Trail Blazers opened the 2015-16 regular season in grand fashion tonight, disposing of the New Orleans Pelicans 112-94. Torrid shooting from CJ McCollum got the Blazers got off to a great start. They built a 30-point lead early in the third period and coasted home for the win. The resounding victory was an impressive beginning to a new era for the franchise.
If the NBA season could have been called to a halt after one quarter this evening the Blazers would have been declared World Champions. The "Perfect First Quarter" moniker will forever belong to the Clyde-Drexler-led Trail Blazers in their 1990 romp over David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs, a period which ended with Portland ahead 49-18. But tonight's first quarter was, at minimum, pristine...and for these Blazers it was downright perfect. Everything they hoped to display came to the fore. They rebounded, ran, moved the ball on offense, hit open threes, attacked the rim, showed mobility and athleticism on defense, and forced turnovers. Garnering 10 free throw attempts and hitting 9 was the icing on the cake. With New Orleans demonstrating the defensive recognition of a carrot (and approximately the same foot speed) the Blazers streaked out to a 43-18 lead after one.
The hero of the opening stanza was CJ McCollum. After missing his first shot of the season, McCollum ripped off 3 consecutive three-pointers, part of 6 straight shots he'd hit in the period. He finished the quarter with 22 points, breaking through the Pelicans defense like a flood-stage river. McCollum's long-range assault left the opponent slack-jawed and staring, allowing his teammates to assault the lane with impunity. Free throws, layups, and easy kick-outs followed. The most amazing thing about Portland's 25-point margin in the first might have been how natural it looked.
Also natural was Portland's tendency to get a little crazy as the second period opened. Blazer dribblers began taking on the defense all by themselves, cutting out the motion and ball movement which had so befuddled the Pelicans in the first. Momentum swung briefly back towards New Orleans before Damian Lillard re-entered the game and calmed the troops.
Both teams played wide open in the second. Turnovers and fun skyrocketed along with the tempo. Lillard's poise held good throughout and Portland led 70-42 at the half.
The Blazers built the lead to 30 early in the third period before inertia took over. Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday began shaking free of defenders, which opened up lanes for Anthony Davis. The Pelicans moved the ball while the Blazers never quite regained their offensive continuity. Ish Smith took over for Holiday late in the period with even better results. Working off his guards, Anthony Davis would score 6 points in the final 3 minutes of the third as the Pels closed the lead to 87-67 at the three-quarters mark.
Portland couldn't manage any defensive alacrity at the start of the fourth period either. New Orleans scored 11 points in the first 3:40 of the frame. Then Davis hit consecutive threes straddling the 7:00 mark. The margin stood at just 11 when Portland called a full timeout with 6:18 remaining. You could have heard a pin drop in the Moda Center.
Though the Blazers would score only 4 points over the next 4 minutes their defense and rebounding finally picked up again. Blazers bigs swarmed all over the lane. New Orleans mustered up decent three-point looks but couldn't convert them. Then McCollum reprised his first-quarter torrent, posting 7 points in just over 2 minutes as the game closed. That was the nail in the coffin. New Orleans had to satisfy themselves with a moral victory as the Blazers claimed the actual one, 112-94.
If you ever doubted the value of coaching and preparation, this game should cure you. Both of tonight's teams fielded unfamiliar lineups, Portland by design and the Pelicans via injury (and a little design). New Orleans suited up the more dominant star. New Orleans had the edge in continuity and experience. One team looked uncoordinated for much of the game, the other like a playoff squad. The final score will tell you which was which.
Yes, the Blazers will likely sneak up on some teams in November, but looking polished and playing carefree in the first game of the season under these circumstances? That's not supposed to happen, folks.
The confusion and lack of teamwork on the Pelicans side was palpable in that first half. You could see them staring at each other and the bench. The Blazers, meanwhile, ran the system they've been coached to run and (at least for one night, or one half of one night) without evidencing much doubt at all. It looked orchestrated. Give the coaching staff credit for that.
Also functioning well tonight: Portland's three-point shooting (12-32, 37.5%), Portland's paint scoring (46 for the game), and Portland's free throw shooting (12-14, 86%). The Blazers stayed even or slightly ahead on turnovers and fast break points. They only grabbed 6 offensive rebounds but they held the Pelicans to 5 even though New Orleans missed 55 shots in the game. Even if they didn't gain every advantage they wanted, they showed few faults. That's also amazing, all things considered.
The biggest disparity of the night came in field goal percentage, as the Blazers fired 44-88 for an even 50% while the Pelicans shot 36-91 for 40%. Best guess is that this won't happen every evening, but it's worth noting that Portland's first victory of the year came the old-fashioned way.
Portland's guards torched the Moda Center tonight, combining for 58 points on 51% shooting. McCollum weighed far more heavily than Lillard but all parties involved will take that for those kind of results.
That said, when New Orleans managed to slow the Blazers and kept the ball contained Portland looked bad. Take away ball movement, get in the passing lanes, and the Blazers get shaky. Their forwards and centers don't score that well 1-on-1 and the guards find themselves going 1-on-2 to their detriment.
We'll probably see plenty of games that follow tonight's pattern of big first half, struggling second half this season. It's typical of young teams. The rub will come when Portland doesn't get the big first half cushion. But that's a worry for another night.
With this victory, the Blazers announced their intentions and their ability to play, both of which have been questioned during the off-season. Whether they'll be able to repeat the experiment remains to be seen. But as the old saying goes, all's well that starts well. Or that's how it should go anyway. 1-0 sounds pretty nice.
The Pelicans started the game watching Damian Lillard and protecting the rim, as you'd expect a smart opponent to do. CJ McCollum chucked their game plan right out the window with his 22-point first quarter and they spent the rest of the half trying to recover. McCollum would finish with a career-high 37 on 14-22 shooting, a critical 6-9 from the three-point arc. He looked better at shooting guard than point guard, but let's face it...37 points looks good anywhere.
Lillard struggled through a 1-7 shooting night from distance but it hardly mattered. He scored 21 with 11 assists and the team looked more centered when he was on the court than off it, despite the shooting.
Meyers Leonard shot only 2-7 from the arc on a wide array of open shots. If teams keep leaving him as wide open as he was tonight he'll make them pay. The sooner the better for the Blazers.
Al-Farouq Aminu scored the first points of the season for the Trail Blazers, a beautiful coffin-corner three off of a kick out from Mason Plumlee. It could not have been a better example for Portland's new-look offense. Aminu's defensive chops were as strong as advertised and he grabbed 8 rebounds in 31 minutes.
Mason Plumlee's 6 rebounds in 19 minutes were impressive, but not more so than his 6 assists. It looks like he'll be having plenty of fun in this system.
Ed Davis beasted his way into the lineup with 12 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. The only demerit earned by Portland's bigs tonight came in the form of fouls. Davis collected 5, Plumlee 4. But considering King Smoothie himself played on the other side, that's not entirely unexpected. Anthony Davis shot 10-17 for 25 points and 10 rebounds but Portland's big-man corps acquitted themselves as well as can be expected.
Moe Harkless shot 3-6 in 18 minutes and while he didn't have an Aminu-level performance, he looked just fine. You're going to like Portland's small forwards.
Allen Crabbe never found his rhythm in 22 minutes of play. Noah Vonleh picked up 2 instantaneous fouls and didn't seem to get his head in the game after.
Links and Notes
The Bird Writes will cover the Pelicans perspective for you.
A report came out tonight that Blazers forward Cliff Alexander may need surgery.
Next Game: Blazers vs the Phoenix Suns at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in Phoenix.