Rejoice, Portland Trail Blazers fans! On Friday night in Portland, the Blazers shook off the post-turkey-hangover to put five players in double figures on the way to a 119-104 win over the visiting New Orleans Pelicans.
As has been their wont recently, the Trail Blazers came out playing the opening stanza like a pick up game at the local YMCA. Each team got whatever shots they wanted against least amount of resistance possible. At least the scoring was two-sided. CJ McCollum benefitted greatly, dropping 10 points in the first while Damian Lillard fed cutters to the tune of 5 assists. Meanwhile the Pelicans got to the line 11 times and managed to drop 34 points in the period. End result: New Orleans 34-32 after one.
The Blazers often cede ground when the second unit takes the floor, making difficult games nearly impossible. Tonight the bench unit came in like cream cheese and cranberry sauce, turning a mound of turkey into pure deliciousness. After an inauspicious start (including a technical foul for only having 4 players on the floor) that gave the Pelicans a 7-0 run, Portland’s bench took over. Jake Layman fed the whole arena with energy. A McCollum three immediately followed by a run-out finger roll by Layman helped the Blazers to an 11-0 run, overcoming the New Orleans lead. When Meyers Leonard finshed an alley-oop dunk from Mason Plumlee the Blazers went from watching the game run away to being in the driver’s seat. Portland finished the period up 9, 66-57.
The second half started with a bit of a lull; then Damian Lillard kicked into gear. Scoring 12 of his team-leading 27 points in the period, Lillard hit from outside and inside. Check out this beautiful reverse finish at the cup with Anthony Davis rushing to close him down:
Lillard wasn’t alone. McCollum, Leonard, and Maurice Harkless all chipped in 5 or more points during the period as Portland dropped 30+ in their third straight quarter. They took a healthy 100-83 lead heading into the final period.
Early in the fourth the Pelicans upped the defensive intensity, contesting shots inside and hitting from all over the floor. Terrence Jones made a cameo appearance knocking down a three while Davis, Jrue Holiday, and company continued the scoring. The comeback looked real. With just over 6 minutes left and the score 105-97, Portland, Jones found himself under the rim with no one near for an uncontested dunk. To celebrate the Pelicans closing to within a half-dozen, Blazers Coach Terry Stotts conducted his own, personal Thanksgiving Day Parade, kicking, yelling and screaming onto the floor as he called a time out.
Stotts’ players responded to his tirade by staging a parade of their own...right down the lane. The play-by-play on Portland’s 14-5 run to close the evening read: dunk, layup, two free throws, layup, dunk, floater, dunk. All 14 points came as a result of inside plays. The final flurry left the Blazers comfortably on top, 119-104.
Portland flipped the script on a bunch of season-long trends in this one. They decided it was better to give than receive paint points, outscoring the Pelicans 64-34 inside thanks to that masterful late-game performance. The Blazers also dominated 23-2 on second chance points, won the rebound battle 52-34, and outran New Orleans 13-5 on the break. Easy points abounded. If you’re going to feature a sub-par defense, that’s one heck of a way to overcome it.
The Blazers weren’t satisfied with beating their opponent down low; they treated them like cake mix in the paint. On both ends of the floor Portland played the aggressor inside. After a slow start defensively, inserting Meyers Leonard seemed to get the Blazers’ interior defense going. It carried through out the rest of the evening.
With Anthony Davis all but guaranteed to score a million (31 tonight, to be exact), Portland’s fate came down to how they defended the guys around him. Unlike their road trip visit to New Orleans a week ago, the Blazers contained the non-Davises well enough. E’Twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday combined for 31 points on 12-21 shooting, Beyond that New Orleans struggled. Tim Frazier shot 3-for-12 from the floor, the remainder of the team 11-23. The Pelicans had a field day from beyond the arc, hitting 13 of 23 long-range attempts, but Portland still controlled the paint and that made the difference.
The Blazers taking the ground game seriously and forcing the opponent to bomb away—clearly a secondary strategy in the Pelicans playbook—marked a huge change from Portland’s recent defensive trends. Portland’s much maligned group of bigs controlled the paint on both ends, rebounded with impunity, and set the tone for the team throughout.
For tonight at least, Portland showed a glimpse of what they could be. They may not be a stout defensive unit, but they showed backbone instead of the mushy-mashed-potato quality we’re used to seeing. They communicated well, kept blown assignments to a bare minimum, and made sure everyone not named Davis was kept at bay. They controlled the boards and denied second chance opportunities to the opponent.
Portland will continue to score on just about everyone. The difference between 119 points bringing a win or a loss boils down to playing this kind of defense or not.
Damian Lillard continued to shine tonight, scoring from everywhere and getting into double figure assists for the second game in a row. (27 points, 11 assists, 9-19 shooting.) CJ McCollum also shot 9-for-19, 4-8 from the arc for 24 points. 50+ points on roughly 45 percent shooting from their star backcourt is exactly what Portland needs to be successful.
Mason Plumlee had quite a night. His assists are becoming common. They nearly propelled him to a triple-double: 12 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists. That’ll do.
Meyers Leonard had his best game of the season tonight. Emotional Meyers is the best. When he’s active and engaged he’s a totally different player. Guarding Davis seemed to bring out his feisty side. Leonard finished the night with 15 points and 9 rebounds. His timely shooting, interior defense, and energy keyed long runs throughout the game.
On a night when it seemed like everything went well, Allen Crabbe was one of the few Blazers left wanting. In what has become a bit of a trend lately, Crabbe was hard to find. In 18 minutes of action he managed 4 points and 3 turnovers. Look what ESPN’s Boxscore did to him briefly:
That’s cold, man. It was just one game.
(It’s since been fixed, thank goodness!)
Speaking of cold, Evan Turner kept Crabbe company on the Naughty List, shooting 3-11 from the field, 1-5 from distance in 25 minutes. At least he provided 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
The Bird Writes will think better of Portland tonight.
The next game features another revenge match up as the Houston Rockets come to town Sunday. The game tips at 6 PM PST.