The New Orleans Pelicans used 41 points from Jrue Holiday and 48 points from Anthony Davis to complete their playoffs sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers by a score of 123-131. The match was a chippy one as multiple altercations arose in the heat of a potential season-ending game that included 5 technical fouls and a flagrant issued to the teams. The Blazers found some success offensively but the Pelicans offensive outpaced them, especially in the second half. The Pelicans will prepare to face the winner of the Golden State Warriors vs the San Antonio Spurs series, while the Blazers will gather themselves for exit interviews.
Countering the Pelicans Game Plan
The story of the series has been the way the Pelicans have defended Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. There is no secret to what they’re doing. New Orleans doubles Lillard on every opportunity and keeps one defender locked on CJ, with no help responsibilities. When Dame is out and CJ is in, CJ gets the Dame treatment.
Lillard and McCollum have struggled to get good shots, but more importantly the rest of the Blazers struggled to create plays even with the advantage. The Blazers started the game looking to combat the strategy in multiple ways. They used Evan Turner at point guard in an attempt to use Dame and CJ as finishers instead of creators. McCollum was more aggressive trying to split double teams. Lillard held the ball one second longer on pick and rolls to allow rolling bigs to catch the ball closer to the rim, a place they are more accustomed to making plays.
The strategy adjustments were the right ones, but the results were not much better. CJ got going with 15 in the first half and 38 for the game. The Blazers put up 123 points, the most points for them in this series, but it was not enough to make up for the crumbling defense that gave up 131.
You can’t say Portland went out without a fight. The Pelicans tried to punk the Blazers a few times and Portland was not having it. Early in the game, Anthony Davis finished an alley-oop over rookie Zach Collins and flexed on the Blazers rookie. Not a second went by before Davis was met with a forearm from Ed Davis. The Brow pushed back and both Davis-es were given technical fouls.
Later, after the refs missed a foul on a McCollum drive, E’twaun Moore found an open lane to the rim the other way and CJ ran him down and gave him a good hard playoff foul. Moore, who’d only logged 30 total minutes in the playoffs before this series, took exception to the foul. McCollum was assessed a flagrant while Moore picked up a technical after pushing McCollum, starting an extended altercation.
Even young Collins got into the action, responding with a shove to Rajon Rondo after Rondo slapped the ball out of the hands of the Blazers rookie during a dead ball. Once again, an extended altercation ensued.
The Blazers fought, they hit back, they clawed, they battled. They made many mistakes this game, but they were not bullied as they fought for their playoff lives.
The Season Crumbles
The Blazers have been notorious for struggling in the third quarters and this game was no different. Portland gave up 42 point in the third. The belly was showing and it looked like the white flag was going to follow. Give the Pelicans credit for hitting shots and taking care of the ball, but they also scraped out loose balls and pulled down offensive boards. As the team on the ropes, Portland should never have allowed that.
The Blazers made a huge run in the fourth behind the offense of Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and McCollum. They got the lead down to two, the latest point coming after a pair of Evan Turner free throws with 3:08 remaining. Ultimately the Blazers could not overcome a 73-point half, led by Jrue Holiday and Davis, who combined for 88 total points(!) The offense clicked but the defense never did, and the Blazers fell by 8 in what would turn out to be the final game of their season.
All of the 3 altercations today were reactions to aggression from the Pelicans. It was fitting because every significant punch the Blazers threw today was a counter punch. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Blazers played like the had their backs against the wall. Then Portland force fed Jusuf Nurkic while he had mismatches. Then McCollum started reminding the league that he is one of the best scorers in all the NBA offensively in a 1-on-1 match up. Then the Blazers best defender, Al Farouq Aminu, finally guarded the player that had been hurting the Blazers the most: Holiday. Those aggressive, “try to stop this” plays are exactly the kind the Blazers players and coaching staff failed to bring earlier in the game...or the whole series, for that matter.
Holiday and Davis were both spectacular, especially when fending off the fourth-quarter charge, but this loss should haunt Portland for other reasons. The Pelicans doubled Lillard all game long, willingly leaving a 4-on-3 behind them. To clarify, New Orleans would rather play three on four neutralizing Dame with two defenders than to play five-on-five. This is the type of defense good high school teams employ against bad high school teams. It’s embarrassing that Portland wasn't able to create a great shot every possession. Scoring 123 points was certainly acceptable for Portland, but the strategy of forcing someone other than Lillard to make a play still produced a win for New Orleans.
If you ever question how valuable Dame is to this team. Look no further than that.
Last Dance with The Fellas
Al Farouq Aminu - The Pelicans made a conscious decision to force Aminu make a play. They left him all alone at the three-point line daring him to beat them. Aminu responded by shooting 11-19 from the field, and 5-11 from 3, enhancing his case for best Blazer of the series award. Aminu did a spectacular job when he faced Holiday for parts of the fourt . He struggled guarding Davis down low, but as bad as the series was overall, you couldn’t have hoped for more from the Chief.
Damian Lillard - Ugh, another brutal outing for Dame. He ended up 7-16 from the field with 19 points and was never able to get going. His ability to draw multiple defenders throughout the game was important in getting shots for other players. But even in a tight, do or die game, Mr. 4th Quarter, “Lillard Time”...that Damian Lillard, finished just 1-2 in the fourth. This wasn’t all his fault of course, but it’s still a sad way for such an incredible season to end for the All-Star point guard.
CJ McCollum - As Dame took a backseat to his teammates, CJ took the wheel. McCollum led the charge late, carrying the offense through the end of the game. While he struggled to add more than his scoring, his 38 points on 22 shots, including 11 in the final period, was all you could ask for.
Jusuf Nurkic - Nurk got rolling offensively, taking advantage of the matchup with Nikola Mirotic by scoring 10 in the fourth quarter. He anchored the big Blazers comeback before fouling out midway through the fourth. Nurkic struggled defensively all series long on both Mirotic and Davis, so it was nice to see the Blazers take advantage of him offensively. He was terrific on the boards again tonight, finishing with 5 offensive rebounds and 11 overall. Even with his defensive inefficiencies today, Portland was better when he was on the court.
Thank you to all of you for following along with us this season! It’s been our pleasure to recap games with you. Stick with us as we transition through Exit Interviews through the draft and free agency, which suddenly take on extra significance—and maybe even a little tension—with the playoffs sweep.