The Portland Trail Blazers dug themselves into an even deeper playoff hole, getting blown out by the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 3 of their best-of-seven series. New Orleans treated their fans to a contest where the outcome was never really in question. Thanks to 58 combined points from Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans enjoyed a double-digit lead for nearly the entire contest. Portland was left speechless, as Damian Lillard struggled to 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Things were already looking dim for the Blazers after losing back-to-back at home, and it only got darker after the implosion on the bayou. The hope inspired by Portland’s 13-game winning streak seems like a distant memory, but faint glows are all that remain after this 119-102 loss.
Exercise In Futility
The Trail Blazers started the game hot, hitting four of their first five shots from beyond the arc. More importantly, two of those three-pointers came from Damian Lillard. Unfortunately, for Portland that pace wouldn’t last. The exact opposite happened, as the Blazers missed their next eight shots from distance. As if their own scoring problems weren’t enough, the hot hand of Nikola Mirotic spurred a ferocious 13-0 run for the Pelicans. At that point New Orleans was zooming down a water slide, as Portland ran up an escalator moving in the opposite direction. Thanks to 14 points from Mirotic, the Pelicans owned a comfortable 36-20 lead after one.
The blue flame surrounding the Pelicans cooled to start the second quarter, but the Blazers were unable to maintain possession long enough to make a dent in the deficit. The Blazers racked up six turnovers in the period, which further compounded the pressure their offense was already facing. The sloppiness of the second quarter played right into New Orleans’ hands, as it allowed them to dictate the pace of the action. Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo feasted on a Blazers defense that was routinely a man down. With a 20-point advantage in hand, the Pelicans easily weathered a CJ-McCollum-led scoring run in the latter stages of the quarter. Buoyed by their 55.8 field goal percentage through two periods, New Orleans held a commanding 64-45 lead at halftime.
A Fool’s Errand
The Blazers emerged from the locker room to force a timeout-inducing 5-0 run. This was the first of two occasions that coach Alvin Gentry would cool Portland’s momentum in the quarter. On both occasions, they worked masterfully. The Pelicans countered the Blazers with an 11-0 run of their own. Facing a 25-point uphill climb, Portland wilted under the pressure. Forced to push the pace, they produced even more turnovers and easy looks for New Orleans. With eight TO’s committed in the quarter, the Blazers’ slight bump in shooting percentage was easily cast aside. The Pelicans continued to build their lead, and finished the third ahead 91-70.
Portland continued to chase as the fourth began, only to run into familiar results. The Pelicans are like quicksand when they get a big lead: the hastier your movement becomes, the faster you sink. With the court wide open, Rajon Rondo continued to pick apart the Blazers’ defense. Trailing by 28 points, coach Terry Stotts finally pulled the plug and removed his starters from the court. Even with the game on ice, Portland’s reserve-led 8-0 run did force another timeout from New Orleans with just under five minutes remaining. But that was it. The fourth quarter mercifully came to an end with the Pelicans claiming a 119-102 victory.
From the moment of the tip off, the Blazers were in a reactive mindset. They were reactive in every aspect of the game. This wasn’t a back and forth game of chess, this was a one sided boxing match. The Pelicans had a plan and their forced it on the Blazers, punch by punch with Portland offering no counter. They took hit after hit hoping, best case scenario, to dodge.
Offensively, the Pelicans used ball screens to create mismatches and exploited those mismatches with easy shots. Anthony Davis received easy passes under the basket while inferior defenders helplessly tried to make a difference. The Pelican guards beat slow-footed bigs off the dribble to get into the key and were then able to find cutters, shooters, or open shots at the rim. Anything the Pelicans wanted, they got. The most impressive part was that every New Orleans player on the court knew what mismatches they wanted and adjusted appropriately. Portland tried doubling the ball handler and recovering aft, but the Pelicans knew that was the only play Portland had and met it with haymakers in the form of back-cut reads and soul-crushing ally oops.
The Pelicans dominated on the defensive end by determining everything that happened on that side of the floor. When Portland went to their favorite combo, the pick and roll, New Orleans jumped the ball handler, usually Lillard, and attacked his dribble. Dame was forced to hit his roller right away, but that resulted in big men catching the ball outside of the key, forced to make a play— leaving them decisions that they were not comfortable making. When Dame tried to force the issue, turnovers and low percentage shots were the most common results
As the Pelicans dared someone besides Lillard and McCollum to make plays, the rest of the Portland roster cowered in the spotlight. Anthony Davis caused havoc, roaming defensively without a clue where his guy was for most of the game. The Pelicans’ defense resulted in frustrations and turnovers for Portland with almost no repercussions for New Orleans. Portland took the beating and never mustered a retaliation swing.
The Blazers broke early in this one, as a single unit and completely. Players were falling over while dribbling without a contesting defender in the vicinity. The ball looked greased by the way Portland mishandled it all game. New Orleans was credited with 16 steals but those were more giveaways than takeaways. For the first time in a long time, the Blazers looked like they knew they were the worst team on the court. They succumbed to the fear.
New Goal: Avoid The Sweep
Our friends at The Bird Writes have plenty of reasons to celebrate tonight.
The Blazers will be looking to avoid a season-ending loss when they return to action on Saturday at 2:00 PM, Pacific.