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Pelicans Swallow Slumping Trail Blazers

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The Trail Blazers continued their string of poor performances tonight, losing to the last-place team in the West.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers lined up against the New Orleans Pelicans tonight carrying two straight blowout losses on their back. If ever there was a night for the Blazers to come out with fire in their eyes, their belly, their underpants even, this was it. Unfortunately, the only things burning in this game were Anthony Davis’ fingertips. The New Orleans forward scored 38 points while leading the Pelicans to a comfortable 113-101 victory over the Blazers.

What Happened

In some ways, the first quarter of the game was predictable. The struggling Pelicans couldn’t contain Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, who waltzed around getting whatever looks they wanted. On defense, Portland focused on containing Anthony Davis above all else. That strategy paid off as the Blazers held The Brow to just two points during the entire opening period.

In other ways, the first quarter was a big surprise. Very few of those looks from Dame and CJ went in, while the Pelicans’ guards went wild against them. Tim Frazier and E’Twaun Moore looked like they had absorbed talents from James Harden and Jimmy Butler Monstars-style. Portland managed a rebounding and free throw edges for the first time in ages, but those advantages couldn’t outweigh the 17 points from the Pelicans’ guards. Portland trailed 31-28 after one.

Dame and CJ tried to shoot their way out of their slump in the second period. Sensing they could get wherever they wanted, they stopped bothering with offensive sets. Neither one got hot. Instead they got blocked in the lane repeatedly.

Despite this, the two teams played evenly for a while. Then Anthony Davis came back in. He scored on four straight possessions en route to 16 points in the period. No one could contain him one-on-one and the perimeter players were too busy worrying about their own men to help. Davis led the Pelicans to another massive quarter and they led the Blazers 64 - 51 at half.

Energy picked up in the third period. Portland had a bounce in their step. Wide open threes started to fall. The Blazers got the ball inside and were more aggressive on defense. It felt like the talent gap between the teams would finally start to tell and Portland was poised for a comeback.

Once again, Anthony Davis had other ideas. He continued his reign of terror, waltzing through easy looks and making the most of tough ones too. A steady Portland three-point barrage was undermined by sloppy turnovers and the lack of finishing power inside. The period ended in a draw and Portland remained down 13 at the start of the fourth.

The final quarter ended up being a reprise of the third. Frustrated and desperate, Portland continued to hoist three after three. Most of the looks were open but too few of them fell. Davis still couldn’t miss and the Pelican guards hit timely buckets whenever Portland sent help against him. Suspense left the building far before the teams did as the Pelicans walked away with the 113 - 101 victory.

Analysis

When Jimmy Butler goes off it’s understandable. When James Harden goes off it’s perhaps excusable. When Tim Frazier, E’Twaun Moore, and Jrue Holiday wreck your defensive game plan, there’s a major problem.

Anthony Davis got and deserved a lot of attention tonight opening things up for the Pelicans’ guards. Those interactions are important to recognize. But most teams have been able to help control Davis and still handle New Orleans’ lackluster trio of perimeter players. That’s why New Orleans came into the game with the fourth lowest Offensive Rating in the league despite Davis averaging over 30 points per game.

Somehow Portland couldn’t do both at the same time. When they helped on Davis, the guards went wild. Once the guards forced their hand, no one could guard Davis one-on-one. Jrue Holiday’s presence certainly helped, but it shouldn’t have made that much of a difference. Portland’s defense is WAY behind where it needs to be right now.

There’s no single problem here. We saw an entire range of defensive breakdowns on display tonight. Want missed rotations and lazy close outs? Step right up! Longing for miscommunications and over-helping? We’ve got that too! How about leaving shooters open in the corners and dying on ball screens? Why not? What’s the worst that could happen? I’m not sure how the coaching staff will begin to break down this game film and make corrections. Whatever positive signs we saw from the Blazers’ defense this preseason have gone out the window.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 51 points in this game but took 42 shots to get there. They weren’t the only ones that couldn’t find the touch, as the team shot less than 40% from the field. New Orleans couldn’t defend Portland around the perimeter much tonight. To compensate, their bigs started to cheat out more as the game went on. That opened up the middle of the floor for the Blazers’ frontcourt but they struggled to make plays. Dame and CJ passed out of countless double teams to set up their bigs for 4-on-3s. Too often they got blocked or couldn’t make decisions fast enough. The effort was laudable but the offensive talent level is lacking. With all the space in the world, Portland only scored 34 points in the paint to New Orleans’ 50.

In theory the Blazers want to let the backcourt take care of the offense while frontcourt takes care of the defense. That theory fell apart tonight. New Orleans focused on the defensive perimeter knowing Portland couldn’t hurt them inside. On offense, they exploited the guards regardless of how hard the Blazer bigs worked. Instead of forcing the Pelicans to pick their poison, Portland served them the game on a platter.

You do have to give the Blazers credit for shoring up rebounding. They dominated that facet of the game tonight, outrebounding New Orleans 48-37 and securing 13 offensive boards to one for the Pelicans Starting Ed Davis keyed the rebounding turnaround and it was significant.

The season is still early but the currency of excuses for poor play is devaluing with every blowout. Blazers fans shouldn’t panic but I’d start reviewing emergency procedures just in case.

Individual Notes

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot 15/42 tonight. Considering the looks they got, that shooting percentage should have been much higher. There was no excuse for their first quarter defense either. Both guards fell back into bad habits I thought they had kicked long ago. Lillard started spinning around screens rather than fighting over them again. McCollum had some exceptionally lazy close outs. They’ve both talked about improving on defense but tonight they took a step backward.

Besides the awful shooting (5 points on 1/7), Evan Turner looked composed. He was perhaps the only guy consistently playing with the right amount of aggressiveness and precision. That shot though. Uff da. His balance looks off and his feet are flying in different directions when he shoots. Too often he’s squaring up to the basket during his jump rather than before.

Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis played the games we’re accustomed to seeing from them. Effort and offensive rebounding were strong (17 rebounds between the two). When the Blazers prosper those power fowards look great, giving the team exactly what they need. When the Blazers struggle, their limitations become apparent. (They scored a total of two points in 37 minutes.)

I’ve gotta admit, I was surprised Mason Plumlee’s stat line looked so good in this one. He put up 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists against only 2 turnovers. It’s tough to ask much more from him than that. At the same time, the Pelicans left him alone to help defend other players. Those stats look a little less shiny when you consider how many open opportunities he got tonight.

Moe Harkless has to be the best storyline of the season so far. He’s shown so much growth, but this game also served as a reminder of his limitations. He didn’t shoot the ball well (4/13 for 10 points) and looked out of control careening to the rim on several occasions.

Allen Crabbe played a classic Crabbe game, hitting his pull up jumper and contributing nine points and not much else.

Meyers Leonard barely saw the floor tonight, going 1/3 for 5 points in 8 minutes. He struggled to guard anyone mobile. He seems to have a short leash from the coaching staff. He got pulled almost immediately after any bad turnover or unnecessary foul.

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TheBirdWrites must be elated to have Jrue Holiday back.

Portland continues their road trip against the Brooklyn Nets this Sunday at 12:30pm.

You can help over 2000 underprivileged kids see the Trail Blazers play the 76’ers on March 9th!