The Portland Trail Blazers faced their first game without All-Star guard Damian Lillard (groin injury) tonight, hosting Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Portland put up a respectable 115 points without their leading scorer, but they barely defended, never led, and ultimately fell to the Pelicans 128-115. It wasn’t a pretty effort, but it wasn’t markedly worse than many of Portland’s outings this season.
CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony came out looking to score early, obviously presenting Portland’s best options. (The other ones were honestly pretty ugly at this point.) Their defense was just as poor returning from the All-Star break as it had been prior. New Orleans scored anywhere and everywhere. Portland was on pace for 30 in the first, the Pelicans 40.
The Blazers began sharing the wealth on offense mid-quarter, but Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram picked them apart inside. Fortunately Portland caught fire as the period closed, stroking threes, then diving inside. McCollum wasn’t scoring late, but he was right in the middle of the offense with 7 assists in the first. With the Pelicans hitting 5 of 7 three-pointers in the period, it wasn’t quite enough. New Orleans led 41-35 after the first.
The Pelicans tried to push pace in the second period, no doubt hoping to tire the shorthanded Blazers, or at least draw fouls. It didn’t quite work; New Orleans had trouble getting back on defense just as often as the Blazers did. But Portland never could shut down the inside. They kept close with three-point shots while New Orleans dunked, got layups, and shot free throws. When Portland gave up the rebounding advantage too, things got ugly.
Hassan Whiteside picked up his fourth foul in the second, but that didn’t matter too much, as the Pelicans were moving the ball anyway and his defense was only halfway effective. As much as the Blazers tried to rely on the three-ball to keep them alive, the Pelicans’ tally beyond the arc at halftime was 9 for 14 (with two of those misses being desperation heaves; they were 9 of 12 on honest shots). It was like challenging the Hulk to a green contest. New Orleans led 73-63 at the half.
Whiteside and Anthony spurred Portland into a mini-run in the third period, anchoring a 9-0 run to bring the Blazers within 3 with a little over seven minutes remaining. The Pelicans squished that quickly, pushing it back to 11 by the 4:30 mark. No matter what the Blazers did offensively, they couldn’t defend for long. They couldn’t cover the arc to save their lives and New Orleans took advantage whenever they needed to score. A Josh Hart three at the buzzer was a final, cruel stroke. New Orleans led 102-83 after three.
It was a 20-point lead for the Pelicans going into the fourth and the Blazers were defending like Kleenex in the ocean. Any comeback was short-lived as the Pelicans cruised home to victory.
The Blazers are going to have a super-hard time looking respectable in any game where they give up 100+ points in just three quarters. They did it again tonight. That kind of defense makes everything else irrelevant.
How bad was it? New Orleans shot 53.6% from the field, 52.9% from the arc, and they actually had to kind of suck as the game progressed to get that low. If they could hit a free throw (they went 20-33, 60.6%), the Blazers would have lost by a billion.
Gary Trent Jr. was clearly the revelation of the night. Starting at shooting guard, he hit 5-11 shots and 3-4 from distance, scoring from all ranges, including off the dribble. He played decent defense too.
CJ McCollum did well enough in Lillard’s absence, scoring 27 on 10-22 shooting with 10 assists and 5 turnovers. It sort of looks like an early-season Lillard line.
Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 12 rebounds, but local and national commentators noted that he was absolutely ineffective getting out to help on the perimeter, mostly because he didn’t move.
No matter how much the Blazers struggled, they didn’t have as bad of a night as the most famous beverage server in basketball.
The Blazers welcome the no-name Detroit Pistons on Sunday at 6:00 PM, Pacific.