In potentially their last game without Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Orlando Magic 130-107 behind CJ McCollum’s 41 points. All five starters scored in double figures, as well as Mario Hezonja adding 10 points in 27 minutes off the bench.
The victory ended Portland’s three-game losing streak and represented the lone win of their current three-game road trip. Depending on the results of the other Monday matchups, the Blazers could move within three games of the eighth seed in the West.
CJ McCollum Stays Hot
Since the All-Star break, McCollum is averaging 33.3 points per game in an attempt to fill the offensive void left by Lillard. Tonight, he added another 41-point effort on remarkably efficient 14/24 shooting and 6/12 from three. These buckets came from all three levels of the court and were a balance of catch-and-shoot opportunities and off the dribble creations.
17 of McCollum’s 41 came in the first quarter. He took control of the offense when Orlando blocked off other options, so much so that the Magic started throwing double teams at him once he crossed half court. That experiment quickly failed and McCollum continued his onslaught with four straight threes in the first half.
He played a secondary role for much of the third and fourth quarter as his teammates’ shot began to fall. However, in the final few minutes of the game, McCollum used screen after screen from Caleb Swanigan to generate openings in the midrange and from three. His personal 9-0 run with three minutes left pushed the deficit out of reach for Orlando and earned the Blazers starters much-needed extra rest.
Mario Hezonja’s Comeback Game
Hezonja has not played in three of Portland’s six games post-All-Star break. In the three he did see the court, he only recorded a cumulative 10 points in nearly 40 minutes of time. Tonight, he doubled that number and supplied effort and intelligent plays that won’t show up in the box score.
Hezonja primarily took shots at the rim — where he’s most efficient — and didn’t force the issue off the bounce. He dribbled with his head up and knew to find McCollum or Gary Trent Jr., both of who had the hot hand at different points in the game. Defensively, he didn’t blow any pick and roll coverages, which was the team’s Achilles heel for a majority of tonight’s matchup.
The highlight of Hezonja’s night came when he seemingly earned his second technical foul in a brief dust up with Mo Bamba in the fourth quarter but continuing to play. (The refs later clarified that the initial technical called at the end of the third quarter was on McCollum, not Hezonja. Seemed fishy.) His reliable presence on both ends of the floor really boosted the Blazers.
Gary Trent Jr. Keeps Scoring
Ever since turning 21 years old, Trent Jr. has been on a tear, and Terry Stotts’ recent playbook adjustments reward the second-year guard. On numerous different occasions, the Blazers ran a set to free him on the wing using a Swanigan brick wall screen. As a result, Trent Jr. finished with 24 points on 9/16 shooting and four three-pointers.
He also showed poise out of the pick and roll as a scorer. He masterfully kept Magic defenders on his back — much like Chris Paul famously does — and floated up gentle shots from the elbow that frequently get a generous roll. When the defender did fight around the screen, Trent Jr. sidestepped into a smooth midrange jumper.
Even though he’ll move back to the bench when Lillard returns, Trent Jr.’s timely three-pointers and reliability as a bucket-getter off the dribble will earn him 25+ minutes every game. Not to mention his stout defense, which was on full display tonight against an assortment of Orlando players.
Hassan Whiteside’s Pick and Roll Defense
After explaining his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy before the game, Hassan Whiteside proceeded to give up 30 points and 11 rebounds on 12/24 shooting to Nikola Vucevic. Obviously not all of Vucevic’s offensive contributions were Whiteside’s fault, but his coverage of Orlando’s frequent pick and pops kept the game close for much of the first three quarters.
The big man generally sags back on screens, which opens up the possibility for the screener to pop out for an open three or midrange jumper. Vucevic canned two early triples this way and Whiteside refused to leave the paint. He then started to switch on the screens and therefore encouraged Vucevic to take advantage of the mismatch in the post. The switches also isolated Whiteside on a smaller ball handler, leading to him picking up his fifth foul with seven minutes left in the fourth.
Swanigan provided much tougher defense on Vucevic outside the paint for the remaining time. He showed on the ball handler but recovered to deter Vucevic’s outside shot. Once Whiteside went to the bench, the Orlando center missed all three of his shot attempts and failed to score.
The Blazers head back to the Moda Center to face the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, March 4, at 7:00 p.m. Portland’s next four games are all against sub-.500 teams, and if Lillard returns, are essentially must-wins if they intend to push for a playoff spot.