Anthony Davis went down with a knee injury and Jusuf Nurkic sat out most of the game as the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans faced off tonight. With those moments defining the evening, this game was never destined to be a classic. As is true of most NBA contests, less-expected heroes arose in the place of fallen stars. DeMarcus Cousins cranked out 39 points and 13 rebounds without blinking. CJ McCollum torched the Pelicans with 16 points in the fourth quarter. The enduring accolades from the evening belonged to Portland’s bench, who stepped in to fill the gaps left by Nurkic and a struggling Damian Lillard. It wasn’t cohesive and it wasn’t pretty, but through all the muddle and confusion the Blazers executed in smarter, more balanced fashion, prevailing 103-93 in a game only a mother—and 20,000-odd Moda Center attendees—could love.
The first quarter of this game drew distinction from unexpected exits more than quality. Anthony Davis left the game at the 6:59 mark and would not return, his left knee meriting an MRI. With 5:47 remaining, Jusuf Nurkic sat down with his third foul. This followed his head making sharp contact with Dante Cunningham’s elbow. Nurkic would play only 20 minutes overall. Meanwhile Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum began work on a series of bricks vast enough to repave Pioneer Courthouse Square. Of five big-name players competing in this contest, four were either out of the game or rendered ineffective. The obvious question: Who was actually going to play tonight?
The Blazers offered an answer first. Stepping on the floor to thunderous shrugs, Ed Davis and Caleb Swanigan immediately staked out territory deep in the lane. Within minutes, they owned the entire arena. They locked down rebounds, banged in the post, and swarmed when the Pelicans tried to drive or post. New Orleans ended up with bad-looking jumpers, worse-looking drives, and turnovers.
When Portland needed offense to make up for Lillard and McCollum’s sabbatical, Evan Turner hit shots, cutters, and spin moves. Occasional strikes by Pat Connaughton and Meyers Leonard bolstered the attack. By the 9:00 mark of the second period, Portland had staked themselves to an 11-point lead despite nothing “normal” going right. A flurry of three-pointers brought the Pelicans back as they half closed, but their offense looked more streaky than sustainable. New Orleans led 48-47 at the half.
The forgotten star took center stage in the third period. DeMarcus Cousins broke out of a Boogie Funk by draining three-pointers, controlling the boards, blocking shots, and earning multiple free throws. For a brief moment the declaration that Swanigan, Davis, and the no-name Blazers could hang with a superstar seemed audacious. Lillard and McCollum continued to miss isolation attempts, but forced turnovers, tenacious rebounding, and sheer stubbornness helped the Blazers hang close through Cousins’ onslaught. The Pelicans led 73-71 after three.
Tough lane work continued to buoy Portland in the early minutes of the fourth, with rebounding giving them a threadbare lifeline even when New Orleans began making free in the lane. Then suddenly, on the other end of that lifeline, McCollum appeared. CJ would hit 3 three-pointers on his way to 16 points in the period. With backcourt scoring restored, the Blazers found the gas pedal and a passing lane. They packed the paint against Cousins, knowing that no amount of New Orleans jump-shooting could match CJ’s outburst. Technically the game remained within a single possession past the 90-second mark, but momentum and easy scoring had forsaken the Pelicans long before. Last-ditch free throws allowed the Blazers to make the final margin a comfortable 10 points before Jameer Nelson dribbled out thinking of what might have been.
Up until this point, the performance of Portland’s bench—while admirable—has merited qualifiers. They performed well when measured against expectations, matched up against second-unit counterparts in limited minutes and roles. The caveats went out the window tonight. Portland’s mid-rotation players performed well, period. This was their game. Cousins aside, the test wasn’t too strenuous. New Orleans plays a defined style. Plays and positions are predictable. But Davis, Turner, Swanigan, and company matched up against first-team players headed by a mercurial superstar and held their own. Without their confidence, hustle, and well-leveraged use of bodies to control the lane, Portland would have lost this game.
Of those attributes, confidence was the most striking. The Blazers reserves looked completely unapologetic as they formed defensive tents around, and ripped rebounds from, players they normally wouldn’t have seen. When the offense looked broken, the bench players remained committed to it, neither forcing shots nor shying away from them. It was, quite simply, a bravura performance.
The Blazers were well-prepared for the Pelicans tonight, though Davis’ departure made the effect far more obvious. When in doubt, Portland double-covered the rim and left the perimeter open. New Orleans hit 9 triples, but took 30 attempts to get there. Portland kept them to 34 points in the paint, retaliating with 38 of their own. Best of all, the Blazers held New Orleans to only 4 offensive rebounds while grabbing 18 themselves. That’s an insane advantage.
The Blazers forced 17 turnovers from the Pelicans. That stat was marred somewhat by committing 19 themselves. The combined total shows how fractured the game was, and how crucial Portland’s shreds of consistency turned out to be.
Damian Lillard shot 3-16 from the field, 1-8 from the arc, and scored 13 points with 7 assists and 6 turnovers. That’s a brutal line. To his credit, Lillard did not go outside the offense much even when both he and the team were struggling. He kept in the flow far longer than he did under similar circumstances two years ago, making room for teammates to help dig out the win instead of taking it all on himself.
CJ McCollum’s line wasn’t going to be much better until that fourth quarter outburst. He ended up shooting 7-15 from the field, 4-5 from the arc for 23 points. He got to carry the victory home, but he stood on the shoulders of everyone who supported the game up to the point he took it over.
Jusuf Nurkic had a rough first quarter with one nasty head knock and 3 personal fouls. He returned in the second half but never quite found his groove. He managed 12 points and 7 rebounds in 20 minutes of play, which is plenty good, but he never owned space on either end of the floor. Except for a couple isolated moments, Cousins danced rings around him.
Ed Davis got the Big Call in Nurkic’s absence. He and Caleb Swanigan kept up a steady rain of body blows that softened up the Pelicans for McCollum’s head shots. Interior defense, rebounding, chasing down balls, and generally being annoying to the opponent in the grand tradition of Stacey Augmon and Mario Elie...these guys did it all. Davis posted 12 points and 10 rebounds on 6-12 shooting in 21 minutes. Swanigan gave 5 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists in 16 minutes. Morph them into one starter playing 37 minutes and they’d have contributed 17 points and 18 rebounds. That’s pretty decent.
Evan Turner’s 4-12 shooting line doesn’t look that impressive, but he got into a nest of three-pointers and got all scratched up. Before that, he calmed and organized Portland’s offense when the starting guards were at a loss. Passing, posting, and defending were exactly the tonic the team needed. Turner provided them, scoring 13 with 4 assists and 7 rebounds.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a passable night with 8 points and 7 rebounds; Moe Harkless had a rough one, shooting 0-5 for 4 points and 6 rebounds. BUT...both proved long and rangy enough to help when the Blazers needed extra men to shade towards the middle. Without them, the bigger forwards couldn’t have controlled space as effectively. If you have to score in a certain area of the floor, the Blazers can certainly send men to contain you. Aminu and Harkless stand in those ranks.
Meyers Leonard scored 5 points in 6 minutes, hitting a couple shots and briefly getting in Cousins’ head, as is his wont. Eventually the Pelicans are going to want to trade for Meyers.
Pat Connaughton hit a couple of threes and added 6 rebounds to Portland’s impressive total.
The Bird Writes won’t care about this game as long as Davis is OK. Here’s hoping he is.
The Blazers welcome Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers to Moda Center on Thursday night.
Feeling happy about Portland’s 3-1 record? Why not help send 2000 kids to see them play in February! Here’s how.