The Portland Trail Blazers played the first quarter of their dreams tonight versus Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. They made the newly-formed Pelicans rotation look like they were trying to gel in the blazing sun of an offensive Sahara. After the first, though, it was all downhill. Williamson and company ran, jammed, and generally bulled their way to a convincing 138-117 victory that Portland looked powerless to stop.
The veteran Blazers frontcourt went all-in to start this game. Hassan Whiteside scored twice in the paint, Carmelo Anthony hit inside and out, while Trevor Ariza hit a three, all within the first few minutes of action. On the other end, the Pelicans backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball burned the Blazers. Halfway through the quarter, the score was virtually deadlocked, 14-13.
Then the Blazers went on The Run (tm). They forced New Orleans into a 1-8 shooting stretch. They continued to distribute the ball on offense. Everybody scored; everybody was shooting 50% or better. It was everything a classic basketball aficionado could want. When the smoke cleared, Portland led 36-27. It was as impressive of a period as the Blazers have registered all year.
The Blazers had trouble containing JJ Redick and Zion Williamson as the second quarter commenced. The margin closed until Anthony and CJ McCollum went off, extending it back as high as 14. But New Orleans would not be denied. They went crazy from the three-point arc, then salted the sundae with layups. Those extra points were enough to pull them back to within 65-63 at the half. That was fine for Portland in the abstract, but somewhat disappointing in context after the fantastic start.
Both teams largely abandoned the perimeter at the start of the third. Williamson went hard inside, as Lillard and Whiteside converted layups and free throws. The Pelicans had superior speed, leaking out on the break to give themselves an edge over the halfcourt-bound Blazers. Before you could scream, “Play Defense!” the Pels rattled off a 13-3 run and led 88-78, all but inverting Portland’s former edge. When the Blazers started to get out-rebounded heavily too, the game turned south in a hurry. By the time the horn sounded to end the third, New Orleans had topped 100 and led by 18.
Though you’d not know it, considering the frequency with which the Blazers allow it this year, an opponent scoring 100 in just three quarters is a bad thing.
Things didn’t get any better in the fourth. Head Coach Terry Stotts put the bench in early for this one. It was the right move.
The Trail Blazers played an incredible first period, but for the balance of the game they were never fast enough for long enough. This makes sense. Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside aren’t going to beat anybody down the floor. The starting guards prefer a halfcourt pace. New Orleans just wasn’t having it. The Pelicans parlayed rebounding and athleticism into a 35-13 advantage in fast break points.
Zion Williamson was a brick against the big toe of Portland’s defense. He got whatever he wanted. Except when he didn’t. Then he rebounded the miss and got whatever he wanted the second time. He finished with as many points as Baskin-Robbins has flavors. Meanwhile Portland’s milkshake machine was broken. JJ Redick scored as much (20) as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum did. That’s always bad news.
The Blazers got into it with the officials again tonight, with Lillard and Anthony each earning technicals. It’s been a regular theme lately. They need to change focus, concentrating on things they control and letting the rest take care of itself. The only thing they’re going to develop like this is a reputation. Not giving a damn about that might work for Joan Jett, but she doesn’t have to play 27 more games this season, plus playoffs.
In a chicken-and-egg development, Williamson shot as many free throws (14) as Portland’s entire starting lineup combined (9 for Lillard, 5 for everyone else). The Blazers were only a -4 in points at the foul line, though. The final margin was way bigger than that.
In yet another battle between teams fighting for low playoffs seeds in the West, the Blazers take on the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow at 5:00 PM, Pacific.