The Trail Blazers extended their current winning streak to six games thanks to a 126-124 victory over the Pelicans on Wednesday. Once again, Damian Lillard provided the fireworks for Portland’s offense. Lillard notched 43 points of his own and got his teammates involved with 16 assists. For the Pelicans, Zion Williamson looked the part of an unstoppable force when he was on the floor. The second-year phenom went 12-18 from the floor and recorded 36 points in 34 minutes of action.
Here are six observations from the Blazers’ sixth consecutive victory.
Dropping Dimes Dame
Lillard absolutely torched the Pelicans’ spotty pick-and-roll defensive pressure from the opening tip to the final buzzer. He tied defenders in knots by deftly navigating screens and making decisive moves once separation was established. Once Lillard turned the corner, he slid effortlessly through the Pels’ added pressure. Moving downhill, the former Weber State star expertly mixed up his own finishes with perfectly-placed passes to teammates on the perimeter. It was a master class in NBA point guardsmanship (yep, it is a word now).
In the final moments of the game, Lillard’s game-long chess match with the Pelicans’ defense paid off. He baited Lonzo Ball into thinking a screen was coming, then quickly shot towards the baseline for a gorgeous finish and the foul.
Lillard finished the night with 43 points and tied his career-high for single-game assists with 16 dimes. After tonight’s victory, Lillard has recorded double-digit assists in three consecutive games.
Early Zone Struggles Blossoms Into Stellar Scramble
The Blazers looked the part of a team that just stepped off a delayed flight in a back-to-back situation in the second quarter. Fueled by open looks, the Pelicans could not miss from distance in the second frame. Coach Terry Stotts tossed an alternating zone scheme at New Orleans, abandoned it, then returned to it. Nothing seemed to work as the Pelicans enjoyed an extended run that resulted in a double-digit halftime lead.
Somehow, the Blazers discovered new legs in the second half. Portland’s perimeter defenders suddenly caught their stride on the defensive end. Rotations tightened and shooting windows closed for the Pelicans. Outside of Zion’s bulldozing style, the Blazers course corrected enough to set the stage for Lillard to work his magic.
Brandon Ingram is going to see No. 23 and No. 55 in his sleep tonight. Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington put on a show in one-on-one and help situations. The versatile duo delivered as advertised in the second half. Covington, who finished with four blocks, slid from tough assignment to tough assignment on the defensive end. Jones, who recorded two blocks, was an absolute menace and routinely made the right play. It might not show up in the box score, but Jones’ late-game foul on one of Williamson’s fast breaks shifted the momentum. He managed to avoid a clear-path foul and forced Zion to head to the line for two free throws.
Offensively, Covington and Jones combined for 25 points and 15 rebounds.
Gary Trent Jr. Continues to Shine
Aside from Lillard’s MVP-caliber play, Trent’s continued growth is the brightest part of the Blazers’ recent streak. The former Duke standout continues to gain confidence in all facets of his offensive game. Even when covered, Trent is starting to establish himself as a premier step-back three-point shooter. In less than a year, his talents have evolved from a scrappy catch-and-shoot operator to an absolute triple threat.
In all but one game in the month of February, Trent has connected on at least three shots from beyond the arc in each contest.
Four Quarters, Two Melos
Carmelo Anthony forced his way through a plethora of less-than-ideal isolation plays in the first half. He connected on three of his eight attempts and failed to notch a single assist through two quarters.
The stats might not fully reflect it, but the second half unfolded in a much different fashion. The 36-year-old star used his one-on-one advantages to bend the Pelicans’ defense to Portland’s advantage. Operating out of the high post, Melo’s second half featured plenty of offense for himself and ball movement for others. Inside the second unit, that style of play has proven to be a winning recipe. He finished the game with 12 points, three rebounds and one assist (he probably notched a handful of hockey assists in the second half to go along with that traditional line as well).
The Blazers return home for a game on Saturday with their winning streak intact. Lillard’s play is definitely on top of the marquee, but Portland’s defense and hustle has shown drastic improvement over this stretch. Instead of trudging through the motions, the Blazers’ play on the defensive end has actual purpose and enthusiasm. That success has also translated to the offensive side of the ball. It appears that Covington’s steady watering of the garden on the defensive end is allowing his offense to come into bloom.
The Blazers return home to host the Wizards on Saturday.