After an encouraging start on an East Coast Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like they might follow up Friday’s impressive victory over the Los Angeles Clippers with a gutsy road win against the Charlotte Hornets. That was not to be. Showing grit in the second half, the Hornets sent the Blazers packing with a 125-113 defeat.
Damian Lillard continued to have considerable trouble with his outside shot, going 2-14 from beyond the arc, shooting only 5-20 overall for 14 points. CJ McCollum led the team with 25 points. LaMelo Ball had a game-high 27 points for Charlotte.
The Hornets came out of the nest on fire from deep, knocking down seven treys in the quarter, most of which came in the opening minutes. The Blazers didn’t blow the roof off of the Spectrum Center, but executed their offense well enough to tread water through Charlotte’s opening onslaught.
Similarly to Friday’s win against Los Angeles, Portland’s starters fell behind briefly before giving way to to an energized second unit led by Cody Zeller and Nassir Little, who used raw hustle to turn a deficit into an advantage by the end of the period. Portland did a good job of forcing defenders to commit on on the strong side of the floor, then finding a cutter near the basket coming from the weak side, with Zeller being the main beneficiary.
Portland led 29-27 after one.
With the Blazers’ stars struggling to find a shooting rhythm - Lillard and McCollum combined for just 15 points in the half - the bench was once again tasked with doing much of the heavy lifting. Anfernee Simons quickly erased memory of his stinker against the clippers, drilling four threes in the half for 12 of his 19 points. And these were cool, ruthless, zero hesitation threes, mind you. I don’t think any of them came close to touching the rim.
Even with his shot not falling, Lillard remained effective with seven assists. That helped the Blazers to a 60-53 halftime lead.
Credit to the Hornets. They weren’t going to be out-worked in their own house (at least not for four quarters). They came out of the break with invigorated spirit. LaMemo Ball started to heat up and the effort was contagious. In a horrendous stretch for the Blazers, they allowed an open dunk for Mason Plumlee, followed by a careless inbound pass from Jusuf Nurkic leading to a Terry Rozier three. Nurkic set an illegal screen on the ensuing inbounds pass, setting up an easy another two for Ball. When all was said and done, Charlotte had almost completely erased all of Portland’s lead in a single trip down the floor. That was just as deflating as that sounds. By the end of the quarter, the Hornets had regained the lead, 89-88. They wouldn’t look back.
Portland didn’t wave the white flag, but you could tell that the proverbial “pep” had been all but drained from their step as Charlotte continue to out-hustle and out-maneuver their opponent. Just about every 50/50 play went the way of the Hornets, and they earned it. Blazers never really threatened.
Cody Zeller made his return to Charlotte, where he played the first eight seasons of his career after being drafted 4th overall back in 2013. He must have made an impression, as he was welcomed with an in-arena video tribute followed by a decent ovation from the sparse crowd. Not a bad sign when your ex is happy to see you.
Stay tuned for the extended analysis coming soon.
The Blazers will hop on a plane and head to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers tomorrow evening at 4 pm Pacific.