The Portland Trail Blazers squeaked out a 117-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans tonight. The win preserved their place in the Western Conference hierarchy, making their path to the playoffs a little bit clearer. For all that, it wasn't easy. Despite Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis remaining in the locker room after halftime--victim of an as-yet-undiagnosed knee injury--the Blazers managed to convert a 20-point first-half lead into a last-minute deficit, almost losing to a team they thought they had knocked out. It wasn't the prettiest victory of the season, but giving its timing, the Blazers will take it.
The first half of this game flowed free and easy for Portland. They opened up with a barrage of three-pointers in the first quarter, with Damian Lillard salting in late layups to push his squad to a 36-30 lead. They didn't defend the Pelicans all that well: Ryan Anderson made hay in the post off of Portland switches and Anthony Davis would tally a monster first half. They made up for those ills with rebounding and ball movement. As the second unit filtered in Ed Davis scooped up boards like beignets while Gerald Henderson and CJ McCollum chopped up the Pelicans for the inevitable victory gumbo. A second straight 30-point quarter awaited the boys in red and they took a 67-53 lead into the half.
The big news coming out of intermission was Davis remaining in the locker room with a knee injury. (As this post publishes we still have no reports on severity or prognosis. Davis would not return to the game.) With their superstar sidelined, staring at the wrong end of a 20-point margin, the Pelicans were done. Not just kind of done, but "you left that on the stove too long and now the bottom of the pot is an inch-thick layer of char and you're going to have to throw the whole thing out" done.
Except they weren't.
Give due credit to Anderson, Jrue Holiday, and the legion of alt-talent scrappers who kept fighting to keep the Pels in this one. As the second half progressed New Orleans took care of the ball, improved their rebounding, shot fantastically from distance, and never gave up the game.
At the same time the Blazers kinda let them do it. And by kinda I mean mostly...yeah...they blew it. The downfall started with a lackadaisical approach to offense. During the first half the Blazers moved the ball crisply, created seams as the defense shifted, then exploited those seams for drives or dishes for three-pointers. In the second half the Blazers dribbled as if the ball carried a reverse electromagnetic field that would magically clear defenders out of the way. Not surprisingly, it didn't. Instead New Orleans swarmed to the rock, leaving the Blazers bailing out instead of attacking with their shots and passes. Only late in the game, when the lead was erased and the game in danger, did Portland return to moving the defense before they attacked instead of plowing into the teeth of it.
Portland's defensive approach may have been worse than the offense. Anderson OBLITERATED the Blazers. Watching a stretch four hit threes is one thing. Watching that same stretch four dribble past 2 defenders and last-second help to ram down a big jam is quite another. And yet...
(Side Note: You know the least fair thing about such videos? The title says, "Ryan Anderson Jams on Gerald Henderson". Poor Gerald was just trying to help! How about, "Ryan Anderson Dribbles Past Moe Harkless and Ed Davis as they Wave Politely at Him, Then Dunks"?)
With that jam was as Exhibit A, I'd argue that you've just witnessed Portland's approach for most of the second half. Anderson's inside-out attack started New Orleans flowing, then Jrue Holiday warmed up to a mid-range game which eventually extended out to the three-point line. As the Pelicans got rolling, the Blazers played like they were still up 20 with not a care in the world. No matter what New Orleans did, Portland wasn't going to lose this game, right? Right???
As it turned out, they almost did. Their rebounding dry, their offense ganging agley, the Blazers watched the Pelicans climb back in it, then take a 105-103 lead with 3:15 remaining.
Portland had exactly one superhero moment during the final 3 minutes: Lillard drove and hit McCollum for an open, cross-court three reminiscent of their first-half attack. Aside from that single strike, Portland's late-game offense came exclusively from the free throw line. They'd attempt 12 charity tosses in the final 2:51. Even with Mason Plumlee missing one, there's no way New Orleans could keep up with that kind of production. The Pelicans managed a couple layups and a final Holiday triple, but it wasn't enough. The Blazers left New Orleans slightly humbled but with most of their pride intact, a victory in hand to buffer this tough stretch of schedule.
The Blazers weren't just counting chickens before they hatched tonight, they were counting chickens after a random dude on the corner said he had a line on some eggs and maybe he'd bring them some if he had the time. Sure, Anthony Davis going down looked like the guy's car pulling around the corner, but it turned out to be a drive-by.
The Blazers are good enough to win in this league. They are not good enough to win when they don't play their style of ball. They made the Pelicans look inept in the first half then made them look like deities after halftime with their only pretense to godhood in the locker room. Players expected rebounds to fall into their hands instead of going and getting them. They played defense with their hands and eyes instead of their feet and bodies. Open threes off of nice passing became covered threes from ridiculous angles; dishes for dunks morphed into 1-on-3 layup attempts. Thank goodness the refs felt like participating in this game. Had they "let 'em play" a few more times on those low-percentage drives the Blazers might have lost.
The points in the paint ran Portland's way by a small margin, 42-38. The Blazers got a far bigger advantage at the line, attempting 40 free throws and hitting 36 against 22-28 for New Orleans. That was the only significant advantage for Portland tonight. Everything else was a tie or went New Orleans' way.
The Blazers shot a muted 9-27 from the arc. They tended to go hot and cold, in part because that's also the way the Pelicans' defense trended. Shot selection was a bigger factor in Portland's low percentage than any lack of marksmanship.
New Orleans dominated on the break 15-4 and shot 48% from the field and the arc.
Rebounding helped keep the Blazers intact, though their offensive boards melted away as the rest of their play waned. Still, this was their strongest suit outside of the free throw line.
However the mid-game went, the Blazers played strong at the start and held on at the very end. Three weeks from now nobody will remember how the game ran. Only the "W" counts.
Damian Lillard had a wonderful night statistically, scoring 33 on 9-19 shooting, 12-12 from the foul line, with 6 assists and 8 rebounds. On the leadership front he was lacking, in that he aided (if not caused) Portland's slide well before he helped rectify it. During the first quarter he was brilliant, getting to the rim with ease. His third-period shooting performance was good enough. But in between those times he became Captain Badshot on offense, promoted to Major Gaffes on the other end. It's fair to ask how much we want to load on Damian. Isn't a 33-point performance plenty? In most ways, yes...especially since it resulted in a victory. But a combination of fatigue and fuzzy focus also caused the guy at the wheel to almost take it off the road.
Portland's second-half struggles got worse as CJ McCollum got into foul trouble. Without a second offensive outlet on the floor the non-Lillards got forced into awkward situations. McCollum did well by his squad with the late three and finished with 30 points on 11-23 shooting, 4-7 from the arc. New Orleans liked to pack the middle a little too much and CJ made them pay.
Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu held the fort. Vonleh picked up 4 fouls in 12 minutes. Plumlee hit 7 of 8 free throws and dished 4 assists, both functions of him touching the ball more than usual. But overall this trio provided the baseline around which the rest of the team swung for good or ill.
There was nothing ill about Gerald Henderson's performance tonight. He has a funny knack of pulling the "veteran" card when the team starts sliding haphazardly. It's like he says, "These are still the Pelicans. And they're without Anthony Davis too. Does anyone else see this??? Because I don't know what you guys are looking at. Whatever...I'm playing." Henderson hit 6-10 shots from the field, 7-8 from the foul line on his way to 19 points in 28 minutes with 6 rebounds.
Ed Davis gave the Blazers 10 rebounds (4 offensive), 10 points, and 2 blocks in 21 minutes. He couldn't be the offensive force the Blazers needed to counter New Orleans' run and he had a few rough moments on the defensive end but at least his wheels were churning.
Nothing was churning except the stomachs of folks who watched Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe tonight. They each went 0-5, combining for 1 point, 5 rebounds, a steal, and 2 turnovers in 48 minutes of play. That's ouchy.
Links and Such
One of the more interesting moments of the evening came when Kendrick Perkins clothes-lined Damian Lillard on a drive like JBL taking out the Blue Meanie. Perkins was ejected with a Flagrant 2. You can see video of the incident here.
The Bird Writes will be glad their guys fought back and worried about Anthony Davis.
With this win the Blazers held on to 6th place in the Western Conference by half a game. The Houston Rockets are nipping at their heels in 7th with the Dallas Mavericks 1.5 games behind in 8th and the Utah Jazz 2 games behind in 9th. That makes this an important victory.
Portland will face the Dallas Mavericks at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday in a game with serious bracket implications.