Overreacting to the Portland Trail Blazers’ loss in Game 1 of their playoff series against the New Orleans Pelicans would be easy. The crowd was hyped. The pregame introductions were loud and electric. The home team had their highest seeding since 2000. After the preliminaries subsided. plenty went wrong. New Orleans is a legit team that poses matchup issues for the Blazers.
Nothing was more indicative of Portland’s problems Saturday night than the battle of the back court. Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo ran roughshod over Portland’s defense, while Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 3 first half points before finally getting it going when it was too late.
The Pelicans defense was keyed in on Dame from the get-go. Holiday, an all-defensive team candidate, made Lillard’s life miserable. Head coach Alvin Gentry sent extra defenders his way when necessary. On the occasions Lillard did get to the basket, the long arms of Anthony Davis were waiting to challenge the shot. Portland’s star was given few quality looks against a solid defensive team that clearly game-planned to take the ball out of his hands.
The Blazers managed to make a game of it in the fourth quarter when Lillard got a few decent looks and CJ McCollum started connecting. It was encouraging to see signs of life, but for the most part, it was a frustrating start to the series for both guards.
But if Blazer fans know anything, it’s that Damian Lillard is not going to just lay down and accept the Pelicans dictating his play. He is too smart, driven, and talented to not make the necessary adjustments. He’s seen what New Orleans can throw at him. And to be fair, it’s a lot. Holiday and Rondo are both pesky on-ball defenders. Davis is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Even so, Lillard got his share of good shots; they just didn’t drop nearly as often as we’re accustomed to seeing. That trend won’t continue.
Sitting in the post-game press conference, Lillard described his last shot attempt of the game; an airballed floater that would’ve put the Blazers up 94-93 with 15 seconds remaining. He admitted that he made the move trying to draw contact from Holiday. It’s common knowledge that the officials allow more contact in the playoffs, especially in late game situations. Of course, Holiday played Lillard masterfully on that possession anyway. I don’t know about you, but I could hear the regret in Lillard’s voice while he described the play. My first thought? “New Orleans better watch out. He’s not going to make that mistake again.”
Opponents can game plan for Lillard all they want to. They’ve been doing it all year, his whole career really. It’s only a matter of time before he erupts again. While Dame does a great job getting his teammates involved, I’m expecting him to take over on Tuesday night. Sure, there will be times where he’s used off the ball—even as a decoy—but when push comes to shove, just like during the Blazers’ 13 game winning streak, Dame is going to do it himself if he has to.
In order to excel, Lillard will need to resign himself to the fact that he’s going to take contact. He’ll need to figure out where Alvin Gentry is sending the double teams from. He’ll probably need to dust off his six to eight foot floater, so as to avoid the menacing Davis. No one in their right mind said this series was going to be a cakewalk. Portland’s star got ambushed and had a rough night. It happens. But I wouldn’t count on it happening again.
I fully expect the next time Lillard is sitting at the podium, he’ll be telling a different story: one about how he made the necessary adjustments and did everything in his power to get his team back on track.
Game 2 of the Blazers-Pelicans series tips at 7:30, Pacific on Tuesday night.