The Portland Trail Blazers pulled out their greatest hits from the regular season as they faced the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 1 of their first-round NBA Playoffs matchup. After getting down by a seemingly-insurmountable margin, the Blazers used energy and sweet shooting from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to crawl back into the game late. But the playoffs are not the same as the regular season, and the Pelicans are not an ordinary team. Fantastic defense from Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday allowed New Orleans to weather the storm, escaping with a 97-95 victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Can’t Tell the Players Without a Program
The Blazers opened the game doing a couple things straight off the white board: rebounding hard and passing around Pelicans defenders. From the start, New Orleans committed to stopping Damian Lillard. This left either open jumpers or isolation sets for Lillard’s teammates, and they took full advantage. Evan Turner took 7 shots and scored 9 in the first quarter. Zach Collins and Ed Davis also looked good. Portland had a hard time stopping Anthony Davis (8 points) and Jrue Holiday (11 points), but when the buzzer sounded they trailed only 21-18. For a deficit, it was small...abnormally so considering Lillard and CJ McCollum had contributed only 3 of those points. It also foreshadowed a low overall score, which was definitely to Portland’s advantage against the pace-intensive Pelicans.
Portland’s bench, including Collins and Pat Connaughton, continued showing promise through the second period. Rebounding remained strong early in the frame. Portland’s bench forced turnovers and held their own. But midway through the period, around the time the starters came back in, New Orleans turned the tide. They picked up their energy on the glass and defense. All of a sudden Portland was committing turnovers while New Orleans profited. With Lillard and McCollum still running dry, the Pelicans reeled off a 14-0 run to earn a 45-36 halftime lead. 45 points against an opponent who would prefer to score 110 for the game screamed success for the Blazers, but 36 on their own side did not.
All About the Timing
Lillard and McCollum were not going to remain silent for another half. The question was, could the Blazers provide enough infrastructure to support a guard-based comeback, or would the guards redeem themselves without really eating into the lead?
At first it looked like the Pelicans would allow Portland back in. Their approach to the early minutes of the second half was scattered. The Blazers scored on possession after possession. But Portland never got a solid hold on the defensive end themselves. Davis continue to do damage, then Nikola Mirotic came alive with a flurry of comeback-crushing three-pointers. Salt in a few turnovers, and even 8 points from a resurgent Lillard couldn’t help the Blazers much. They got down by as many as 19 in the third. A couple of threes in the final 90 seconds helped, but as the fourth period commenced the Blazers still stared at the wrong end of a 75-63 scoreboard.
Portland picked up both defense and tempo early in the fourth, reclaiming their mastery of the boards as well. They stopped the Pelicans from inflating the margin. A little scoring on the Blazers end would have made a huge difference. It didn’t come. New Orleans still led 86-72 when Anthony Davis dunked a Rajon Rondo pass with 6:09 remaining. Groans filled the Moda Center.
A couple of philosophical changes would alter the course of the final six minutes, allowing the Blazers to creep back into, and nearly steal, the game.
First, New Orleans started playing “prevent” offense, milking the clock and their lead. That would have been fine with 3:30 remaining, but halfway through the period was way too soon, considering slow-down is definitely not the Pelicans game.
Just as the Pelicans stopped going hard, the Blazers finally began. New Orleans had made a deal with the devil defensively most of the evening, making sure Lillard got no good looks, playing catch as catch can with everyone else. The approach was sound, partly because Portland’s other scorers didn’t carry the load much past the first quarter, partly because they bludgeoned Lillard into quasi-passivity. Damian touched the ball plenty, but he didn’t look for his own shot. When he did approach the rim off of drives, the shadow of Anthony Davis defense caused him to think twice. He drove without finishing hard. The rest of the non-Evan-Turner Blazers more or less followed suit.
At some point it must have clicked that if the Pelicans could force the ball away from Lillard or make him pull up in unaccustomed fashion, their defense had already won no matter what else happened. The realization came late, but it still made a difference. A couple of jumpers followed by hard-nosed finishes sparked Lillard’s offense, which in turn buoyed Portland’s other scorers. The Blazers also adjusted so that instead of Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu receiving Lillard’s passes, McCollum caught them. CJ made a couple shots and the Blazers roared to life.
Just as two factors spurred Portland’s comeback, two more kept the resurgence from turning into an actual victory.
Through most of the second half the Blazers defended the lane with all the effectiveness of milk and cookies defending Santa Claus. Eventually Mirotic’s devastating jumpers stopped falling, but New Orleans drives off of the high pick and roll never did. Nor could Portland defenders get close to Pelicans pull-up shooters. They tried, but separation was too easy for Davis, Holiday, and Rondo.
Unfortunately for Portland, the Pelicans had no such trouble defending them. Fear of Anthony Davis radiated outward from the bucket in a 10-foot radius, causing everyone in the area to make saving throws instead of concentrating on conversions. Beyond that, Holiday turned in two monstrous game-saving plays. He stripped McCollum solo in the open court when CJ got hung up between a dribble and a pass on the break, then he turned in a massive block on a Connaughton layup attempt with 6.3 seconds remaining and the Blazers down 3. At that point, all Davis had to do was hit free throws to ice it, and he did.
35 points for Anthony Davis, 50% shooting for Holiday, 17 Rondo assists, and a quartet of triples from Mirotic will all be cited as reasons the Pelicans prevailed tonight, but the real knockout blow was their defense. It was intimidating, fairly consistent, and enough to keep the Blazers from following through on their trademark comeback.
Similarly, people will point to 3 combined points for Lillard and McCollum in the first half, 13-41 shooting for the game (31.7%) as the striking Portland numbers in this loss. That’s not incorrect, but it’s also not sufficient. The much bigger numbers are Lillard going 2-2 on foul shots, McCollum 1-1. The two guards averaged 10.5 free throw attempts between them during the regular season, but managed only 3 tonight.
The combination of Davis’ defense and making the “right” play (read: passing to the open man) conspired to keep Portland’s guards from finishing hard, which in turn kept them off the line. And if Lillard and McCollum weren’t getting foul shots, you know no other Blazers were. Portland ended up 9 free throw attempts short of their season average, which translates to 7 critical points they couldn’t draw on. Those missing foul shots were the difference between 18 and 19 points for Lillard/McCollum and topping 20 each despite their poor shooting.
Portland found early, heartening production from ancillary scorers, camouflaging their other issues. In the first half, Turner and Collins appeared to be worth every ounce of trust that the Blazers invested in them. Ed Davis rebounded well throughout; Connaughton and Shabazz Napier hit shots.
As soon as that stopped working and they got down by double digits with the game winding onward, it should have been Lillard and McCollum time no matter who else was on the court. Somehow it never quite was. The guards hit shots, but seldom did you get the sense that this was their playoffs...that the entire series could hang on a single play, mandating every ounce of aggressiveness in the arsenal. Nobody drew contact at the rim, forcing the refs to make a decision. Nobody shoved the dagger in over and over, clawing for life. For some stretches, nobody could find an open shot or hold onto the ball. At best this felt like a typical Blazers comeback...maybe a halfway-assumed one at that. After all, Holiday didn’t block a laser-focused, vicious Connaughton dunk attempt in that fateful final play. Instead he blocked a rather ordinary looking layup that, granted, normally would be converted, but still... If everybody knew everything was on the line and everybody was committed to giving their all, would the game have looked like that?
The post-season demands more than teams usually give. The Pelicans answered that call tonight. The Blazers, for the most part, didn’t. Or at least they didn’t answer it from the top, as New Orleans did. Nor did they answer it long or well enough.
Portland did do a couple fantastic things. They secured 15 offensive rebounds, a huge potential advantage. They also forced 15 New Orleans turnovers, a stat that could have been decisive had the Blazers not also committed 12 of their own.
Other than that, New Orleans’ defensive intimidation factor prevailed. The Pelicans registered 12 blocked shots, forcing the Blazers farther away from the basket than they wanted to be. The result was a 37-98, 37.8% shooting clip for Portland. Even more impressive, the Pelicans countered Portland’s three-point attack, the usual response to interior pressure. The Blazers shot only 12-39, 30.8% from the arc. Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner combined for 1-9 shooting from distance, Portland’s bench 2-11.
Even though Lillard spent two-thirds of the game passing, he netted only 7 assists, as everyone was missing shots. Lillard did go 4-9 from deep, McCollum 4-10. Those are great percentages, but Damian shot just 2-14 inside the arc, CJ 3-8. And, as mentioned above, they combined for three foul shots. Unless you hit ALL your threes, that’s just not going to cut it.
Losing the first game of a seven-game series is not a good sign, but there’s a reason they play seven games instead of one. The Blazers will get a chance to redeem themselves on Tuesday night. After they scored just 3 points in the first half, you knew Lillard and McCollum would come out firing in the second half, and they did. They’ll have three days to contemplate how a little more aggressiveness from them—a little more playing like the stars they’re supposed to be—could have turned this game around early enough to matter. The interval between games should function as another, extended halftime for them. Expect a nastier, more motivated backcourt on Tuesday, and buckle up.
The Bird Writes will give the opposing point of view.