Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were expected to grab headlines as the Portland Trail Blazers fought the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. They are, but not for the right reasons. After Portland’s starting guards proved all but powerless to save their team from defeat in Game 2, it’s clear that the marquee distinction in this series belongs to Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo of the Pelicans. New Orleans’ veteran guards helped their team overcome a fourth quarter in which All-NBA center Anthony Davis did not score, pinning down Lillard and McCollum, and lifting the Pelicans to a 111-102 win and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
A Different Game Plan
The Trail Blazers started this game with an attack designed to take care of two problems at once: avoiding the defense of Holiday and keeping Anthony Davis occupied with something besides help-defense blocks. Portland all but force-fed Jusuf Nurkic in the middle of the floor, going right at Davis. Nurkic turned in a couple shaky possessions, but he also put up shots and grabbed offensive rebounds. Had he drawn a foul or two as well, the plan might have borne serious fruit, but the referees were not cooperating. Nor were the Blazers defending the lane well on the other end...a malaise which would cripple them all night long. New Orleans led 17-10 at the 4:53 mark of the first, leaving the Moda Center crowd stunned. If they expected a definitive statement from their hometown team, they were left wanting.
A Bench Beating
After a recuperative timeout, the Blazers got a boost as Maurice Harkless—out since late March with a knee injury—returned to the floor. The crowd roared, and Harkless responded with a couple of huge defensive stands that turned the game. He also converted a layup and a dunk, complementing a mini-explosion from CJ McCollum. Portland charged back to tie the score at 23 before giving up one more layup to Holiday, leaving the tally at 25-23, New Orleans, after one. It wasn’t the hoped-for result, but the score was within Portland’s comfort zone.
The Blazers’ bench continued to roll as the second period commenced. Zach Collins scored on an array of solo moves, most with his back to the basket. Ed Davis salted in a couple of dunks off the pick and roll, and suddenly the Blazers were ahead. When Collins made a three-pointer with 6:06 remaining, it appeared the momentum, couldn’t be stopped.
Alas, Portland’s starters could not follow up on the promise. Al-Farouq Aminu tried mightily, hitting a pair of threes and a jump shot, and he would end the half as Portland’s leading scorer. Nurkic reprised his early scoring role, but neither of Portland’s starting guards got on track. Nor was the defense any better. The Blazers ended the half up 59-54, but a couple realities were staring them in the face:
- Five points wasn’t enough. To be confident of a win, they needed to clear the comfort hurdle early. They couldn’t afford to let the Pelicans hang around.
- The cost of recouping their first-quarter deficit had been a huge uptick in pace in the second, which played into New Orleans’ hands. The Blazers could control tempo or maintain a lead; they did not appear able to do both. Cracks in the facade were evident, including paint defense and intermittent rebounding issues. Those cracks would burst wide open as energy flagged in the second half.
Things Get Ugly
The Trail Blazers needed to come out in the third period prepared to expand that five-point lead to 12. They got it to six, then their already-bad lane defense turned putrid. The Pelicans pushed the ball right down the middle time and again. Whether off of screens or straight penetration, they found zero resistance. After a season of acceptable performances and defensive pride, this was old-school Blazers perimeter defense...and that’s not a compliment. The Pelicans destroyed Portland’s lead, then they started taking threes. With Blazers flailing in the lane, trying to get containment, those distance shots went down. New Orleans posted a mushroom-cloud, 33-19 third quarter. They led 87-78 heading into the fourth.
Gasping for Air
The Blazers were not going to go down quietly. They put up a fight, but they were gasping for air in both figurative and literal senses. They got brilliant plays—Damian Lillard’s four-pointer at the 7:31 mark among them—but those became the kicks of a swimmer stuck in the ocean with no land in sight. The upward surges were impressive, but ultimately gravity rendered them useless. The Pelicans defense provided most of the downward pull. Under pressure from defenders, the clock, and the series standings, a few botched calls from officials felt like millstones in Portland’s sneakers. Then again, the Blazers might as well have had actual stones in their shoes for all the good their own defense did. They were winded and the Pelicans picked them apart.
Even so, Portland had a chance. For the second straight game, New Orleans got a cumulative case of the stupids when trying to translate a lead into victory. On Saturday they milked the clock too early. Tonight they force-fed Anthony Davis no matter what the defense did, including preemptive double teaming. Turnovers resulted, leading to free looks for Portland. A couple of dunks and a Harkless three put the Blazers back in business, ahead 100-99 with 3:20 remaining.
That’s where it ended, though. Nikola Mirotic hit a rainbow three on the very next possession...ironically against a good close-out. The close-outs would get progressively worse, as Holiday, then Rajon Rondo each canned a triple. In between those shots, the Blazers committed egregious gaffes. Lillard turned over the ball, leading to a foul against E’Twaun Moore. Moore missed both free throws, offering Portland daylight, but neither of the bigs secured the rebound and Lillard didn’t keep Moore out of the lane. With the game on the line and the Blazers breaking a half-dozen cardinal rules of defense, rebounding, and just plain paying attention, Moore grabbed his own missed foul shot. That led to the Rondo three, giving the Pelicans a near-insurmountable 108-100 lead with 39 seconds remaining. The Blazers would lose by 9.
A Tale of Two Guards
Enormous credit goes to Holiday (33 points, 14-24 shooting, 9 assists) and Rondo (16 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) for this victory. Besides the stats just listed, they played masterful ”D”...particularly Holiday, whose defense is so stratospheric right now that Elon Musk just strapped a rocket to it.
That said, the real story for Portland comes from their own guards. Damian Lillard’s offense tonight was no prize, with 1-7 shooting from distance, 7 turnovers, and only 17 points. His defense tonight was worse than all three of those numbers put together. Lillard might as well cut a check to Tyndale House Publishers right now, because when the story of his postseason defense is chronicled, they’re going to call this the Left Behind Series. He wasn’t even close to competent, let alone looking like a team leader on that end of the floor.
McCollum’s problems came on the other side. Shooting 9-21 for 22 points isn’t bad, but despite his team-high 6 assists, he Leroy Jenkins-ed his way through multiple late-game possessions with nary a pass in sight. It was the equivalent of a poker player going all-in every hand, with any two cards. That works for a while, but when the other guys catch on, you’re toast. About the time that McCollum multi-dribbled his way into a fade-away jumper while being guarded stickily by Anthony Davis, you got the feeling that the Pelicans had caught on. His attempts stalled the show.
On Saturday night Lillard and McCollum drew 3 foul shots between them. Tonight they netted 4. With the Pelicans playing strong defense and limiting made field goals, that’s a huge problem. Portland’s guards need to stop being afraid of what Anthony Davis might do, and start making him defend hard finishes. They’re going to get shots blocked and they may end up ineffective, but they’re ineffective now and have nothing to show for it. Getting into his chest, at least there’s a prayer of earning free throws.
The Blazers did have some bright spots tonight. Harkless provided a huge boost, hitting 5-5 from the floor, playing good defense, and adding 5 rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu hit 4-6 from distance with 15 rebounds, 5 offensive. But the rest of the results were mixed.
Pat Connaughton hit 3-5 for 9 points and 4 assists, but the Pelicans went straight at him when they needed a bucket. Zach Collins had a masterful first half but couldn’t connect on wide-open threes in the second, finishing the game 2-7 from the arc. After his hot start, Jusuf Nurkic ended up 5-12 from the field with only 3 rebounds in 15 minutes of play. He ended up in no-man’s land, not dominating inside and unable to defend outside, plus he paid a brief visit to the locker room with a left leg bruise. Evan Turner’s otherwise-strong night was marred by 0-6 shooting from the field and a toe injury.
Add it up, and even the good aspects weren’t near enough to overcome the confidence and execution that New Orleans displayed.
The Blazers kept the Pelicans out of transition tonight, allowing only 7 fast-break points. Any advantage from that got lost when they gave up 50 in the lane. A 13-10 lead in offensive rebounds wasn’t enough to make up the difference.
Portland shot a respectable 45.1% from the field and bounced back from Game 1 with 37.5% shooting from the arc...a substantial improvement. Giving up 51.2% shooting, while allowing the Pelicans to hit 50% from distance, rendered the improved shooting moot.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Portland’s chances of winning the series are slim now, but slivers of hope remain. New Orleans has twice shown weakness while comfortably ahead; they could have won both these games in blowouts and didn’t. There’s hope that they’ll feel comfortably ahead in the series now, leaving the door open for the Blazers to steal the next game. Also, if you think back over the last couple years, Portland’s story has been fairly consistent. Every time you (and perhaps they) think they’ve achieved something, they fall flat on their faces. Every time you want to give up on them, they dig out. They’ll have to do the same again if they want to salvage their post-season. Recovering the series isn’t likely, but it’s not inconceivable that they could at least force another home game, if not two.
Game 3 will commence at 6:00, Pacific on Thursday.