Two days after losing to a poorly-executing, awfully-coached New York Knicks team by abandoning their principles in the fourth quarter, the Portland Trail Blazers almost repeated the trick tonight against the poorly-executing, poorly-coached New Orleans Pelicans. Fortunately Portland appeared to learn something from Saturday night's debacle. When the Pelicans pressured them, the Blazers persevered in their chosen style: sharing the ball, rebounding well, and riding near-invincible guard scoring to a 105-101 victory.
The difference between the Pelicans and Blazers could not have been clearer at the outset of the game. Portland began the evening by whipping around the ball on offense, scoring opportunistically. The Pelicans held the ball, trying to exploit size mismatches. Because the Blazers had turnover trouble, speeding up the Pelicans' offense artificially, New Orleans prospered in the first period, streaking out to a 31-26 lead. Portland stayed close by virtue of offensive rebounds and free throws, but you knew better ball movement would hold them in good stead eventually.
The flow of foul shots reversed in the second period, buoying the Pelicans, but so did the turnover story. Absent quick breakaways, New Orleans' slow offense was...slow. They scored only 17 in the quarter. The Blazers sputtered a little, lacking points from Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard, both of whom struggled through this game. But Gerald Henderson made up for their lack and then some, sparking Portland's bench and driving the Blazers to a 50-48 halftime lead.
The Pelicans started out the third period going to Anthony Davis inside, a tactic which produced results whenever they tried it. Unfortunately Davis' teammates spent the evening saying, "You have a mismatch? I have one too! Watch!" They were not nearly as successful. Portland's starting five once again confounded the Pels with quick ball movement and Henderson streaked off the bench to provide another turbo boost near the end of the quarter. A couple late three-pointers kept the Pelicans from collapsing entirely, but the third period belonged to Portland all the way and the Blazers took a 78-69 advantage into the fourth.
As has been their habit all season, the Blazers built a comfortable lead in the final period--extending the margin to 13 with 10:30 remaining in the game--then gave it right back. Portland's defense was nothing to write home about for most of this game, but they needed a note from their parents to excuse the early- and mid-fourth quarter. New Orleans started the fourth with an inside attack, then connected with even more three-pointers. The margin would sink as low as 4 with less than a minute to play.
But several factors saved the Blazers from yet another ignoble loss. New Orleans continued to play slowly, devolving too often into dribble-heavy iso sets. They couldn't score quickly enough to overcome the double-digit deficit. The Blazers rebounded effectively throughout the entire game. Aside from a few shaky McCollum moments late, Portland continued to move the ball. They didn't take as many bad shots as in a typical fourth-quarter collapse. They were threatened but they held onto enough basics to see them through.
Interestingly enough, the Pelicans inverted the late-game strategy that doomed the Blazers against the Knicks, to no better effect. Down 4 with 30 seconds remaining, New Orleans refused to take anything but a three-pointer with the lane wide open and Portland having proved incapable of stopping them there. Lillard made a half-dozen game-icing free throws down the stretch, but cutting the lead to 2 would have put more pressure on than missing contested three-pointers.
Either way, the Blazers walked away with a welcome 105-101 win, a fitting ending to their home stand and a nice buffer against their 5-game road trip between now and Christmas.
The game flow section tabbed the major factors in this game:
1. Portland's rebounding held them in good stead. They doubled up the Pelicans in offensive rebounds, 10-5. Both teams missed 46 fields goals but the Blazers ended up ahead in total rebounds 50-41...this despite a size disadvantage at nearly every position and Anthony Davis suiting up for the other side. New Orleans doesn't try for offensive rebounds much but they're a good defensive rebounding team and the Blazers bested them handily.
2. Portland's ball movement was persistent and, more often than not, fantastic. Portland ended up with 28 assists on 35 made shots, New Orleans 15 assists on 36 makes. Portland got taken on the defensive end from time to time but the Pelicans had to expend energy on the defensive end every time down the floor. By the end of the game, that showed.
3. Tonight the part of sure-shooting Allen Crabbe was played by Gerald Henderson, who had enough experience to know that leads don't have to be given away and when another team is playing poorly, your team should take advantage. Henderson shot 7-10 from the field, an incredible 4-5 from the three-point arc, scoring 19 points in 21 minutes. For the last few weeks we've been assuming the Blazers have 3 up-and-coming guards. Henderson erased that tonight and penciled in a 4.
Game ball to Henderson.
Damian Lillard finally got in a high-percentage outing, shooting 8-16 from the field and 11-12 from the foul line, pasting 30 on the Pels. He didn't handle the ball as much as normal but his calm radiated through the decisive period even when the scoreboard was crumbling. It wasn't Lillard's flashiest night but it was one of his more solid efforts of the season.
CJ McCollum picked up the ball handling to mixed results. He notched 6 assists but he also left a "Spalding" imprint on the court with his late-game dribbling. His shooting was also mixed, 5-14 overall but 3-6 from the arc for 16 points.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a solid offensive outing, hitting a couple of threes and scoring 10. He's handy to throw against opponents with multiple scoring guards like the Pelicans. He'll take an opposing wing over to a corner of the room and you won't hear from either of them for the rest of the night.
Noah Vonleh looked overmatched against Davis and against the perimeter forwards of the Pelicans generally but this game wasn't one of his early-season disasters. He's adjusting to his spot in the rotation. He provided a steal, a block, and 5 rebounds in 17 minutes.
Mason Plumlee was also overmatched on the defensive end but he didn't let that stop him from grabbing 13 huge rebounds, 5 offensive, dishing 6 assists, and shooting 5-10 from the floor for 15 points. It was the old Willie Keeler-Douglas MacArthur strategy: hit 'em where they ain't. Davis owned all the territory within arm's reach, so Plumlee danced around outside that radius and ended up killing the Pelicans.
Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard combined for 9 assists. You have to give them that. That the assists came because both of them became petrified to shoot the ball? Maybe that's best ignored. Crabbe's shot was awful until he hit a couple redeeming jumpers late. He ended up 2-9, 1-7 from distance, for 7 points in 29 minutes. Leonard's shot was worse than awful and most of his game followed suit. It wasn't quite "Clueless Meyers" from his earliest years but it was as close as we've seen in the last season plus.
Ed Davis had 6 rebounds and 2 steals in 19 minutes and remains an unsung hero. This guy has hit his groove.
Links and Such
How long before The Bird Writes and the entire Pelicans community turns on Alvin Gentry? I'll throw in the near-obligatory mention that he's reportedly a heck of a nice guy but from the early minutes of the first period it looked like this game was eating him up instead of him directing the game.
Game 1 of Portland's five-game East Coast road swing features the Oklahoma City Thunder at 5:00 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday. Russell Westbrook versus Lillard and McCollum? Buckle up.
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