The Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans both entered Tuesday night’s contest missing key players. Both played hard, accentuating their strengths, committed to winning. As one would expect under those circumstances, the game remained close throughout, neither team taking control for long. But in the end, Portland’s single superstar—Damian Lillard—was effectively countered by the Pelicans’ two: Brandon Ingram and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. New Orleans shaved a little off of Lillard’s production, but couldn’t stop him. The Blazers weren’t fielding any defenders tall enough to stop Ingram or quick enough to watch Alexander-Walker. Slowly, but inexorably, the difference showed. New Orleans captured the 111-97 victory, dropping Portland to a 13-19 overall record, 2-12 away from home.
Lillard scored an impressive 39 in the loss, shooting 6-11 from distance and adding 7 assists. Ingram poured in 28. Alexander-Walker had 27, shooting 10-16, 6-9 on threes.
Jusuf Nurkic started this game like a bull in a china closet. He shoved Jonas Valanciunas out of the way on one play like he was Shaq going up against Arvydas Sabonis. Nurk either scored or drew fouls, sending Valanciunas to the pines early. Advantage, Blazers.
With their center out of commission, New Orleans had a hard time getting inside looks. Camping out beyond the arc, they became easy targets for Portland’s defense. The Pelicans spent the early part of the game heaving threes that had no prayer.
If the game would have stayed a strictly halfcourt affair, the Blazers would have had a huge edge. Instead, both teams committed turnovers, disrupting the orderly patterns of the game. Portland enjoyed several miscues from New Orleans, but also gave them back. The difference was, Portland walked the ball down after Pelicans fumbles, while New Orleans ran back Portland’s. Easy shots on the break allowed the Pels to keep pace despite an utterly inept halfcourt attack.
Damian Lillard came alive halfway through the period, as Nurkic’s post play gave way to Dame’s drives. He boosted Portland’s scoring total instantly. The Pelicans finally got a couple threes to fall at the same time, so they kept pace. Portland not hitting a single shot outside of the restricted arc until Ben McLemore canned a three with 15.5 seconds remaining aided the Pelicans’ cause. New Orleans led 24-20 after one.
Portland’s second unit disposed with the paint play at the start of the second, lofting jumpers at a prodigious rate. They missed most. They tried to cover their defensive deficiencies by playing zone, which the Pelicans busted by going into the paint. A resurgent Valanciunas utilized height against center-less opposition; the other Pelicans just drove. This caused raised eyebrows, as the zone is supposed to prevent inside looks. Ah well.
For all that, neither bench brigade managed to connect much. The opening of the second period looked like the start of the first: inside scoring, coming slowly.
Once again, Damian Lillard came alive, turning a deficit into a lead via a three-pointer with 6:45 remaining in the period. New Orleans, still bricking threes, couldn’t answer. They kept leaving turnovers in Portland’s hands, all but begging the Blazers to take control.
Portland’s ability to do so was inhibited by their continued lack of scoring. Lillard’s brilliance converting layups and assists provided their entire attack. He’s Dame, so it worked. But their attack was hardly overwhelming. They amped it up as the half closed, going almost exclusively to the Dame-Nurkic pick-and-roll. New Orleans countered with a huge flurry late, courtesy of Brandon Ingram threes.. Dame vs. The World yielded a 51-49 Pelicans lead at the half.
“Pace” describes both the Pelicans’ chosen form of attack and the actions of Head Coach Chauncey Billups to start the third. New Orleans knew the Blazers wanted to go through Lillard. They denied him the ball, doing whatever was necessary to keep him away from the action. When Nurkic became the default secondary option, the Pels got busy poking the ball away. They didn’t stop Portland, but they slowed them down plenty. Meanwhile every turnover and miss on the Blazers’ end resulted in a hard run-back from New Orleans. Threes and layups fell in equal measure, and suddenly Portland trailed by 14.
Norman Powell brought the Blazers closer with nifty drives and shots while the Pelicans were paying attention to everyone else. But Ingram had long since discovered that nobody the Blazers could put against him was anywhere near his height or reach. He continued to feast on shots that, while not technically open based on floor spacing, were functionally open because nobody could bother him. Portland vs. Ingram turned out to be a distressingly close contest.
The Blazers got rescued by a surprising force: Larry Nance, Jr.’s three-point shooting. A quick six by Portland’s non-shooting forward keyed a big comeback, providing lift to the layups converted by Powell.
Lillard came alive late once again, making sure the comeback stayed valid. After three, the Blazers still trailed 81-78, but they had averted disaster and given themselves a chance. Lillard had 29 heading into the fourth, Ingram 24.
Both Ingram and Lillard sat at the top of the fourth, resting up for the stress minutes. The Blazers went through Nurkic again, with Powell as the first outlet. The Pelicans were prepared, crowding both. Portland did not return the favor on the other end, as New Orleans began to see wide-open threes, which they dutifully hit.
With Portland down 7, Lillard checked back in. Nurkic promptly committed a turnover which led to a quick Pelicans two, but Lillard said, “Nuh-uh” on the next possession, canning a three himself. But Lillard was not the star of the show at the moment. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was in the midst of 13 straight points, making all of Portland’s scoring look futile. Less than a minute later, most of Portland’s starters were back. Lillard and the Blazers were in it to win it. Dame hit a 20-footer and a three to prove it. The margin was down to one with 6:50 remaining; Portland was back in business.
Like bouncers approaching unwelcome guests, Ingram and Alexander-Walker came thundering down on Portland, ready to eject them with mismatches and threes. Once again, the Pelicans made hay by committing to an “anybody but Lillard” defense. The lead expanded from one to four to nine as the clock dwindled. Lillard getting stuffed a couple times in the lane was enough to tip the scales towards New Orleans. They kept scoring no matter what, while Portland just couldn’t.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon!
The Blazers face the Brooklyn Nets in Portland on Thursday night with a 7:00 PM. Pacific start.