The Portland Trail Blazers got into New Orleans for their Wednesday night game against the Pelicans later than usual, with inclement weather cancelling their first flight. But as the Pels learned shortly thereafter, when the ball tips, the only time that truly matters is “Dame Time.” Damian Lillard crafted an electrifying 43-point, 16-assist performance to help the Blazers win a 126-124 nail-biter, propelling them to a perfect three-game road stand.
From the opening tip, the Blazers didn’t look like the team in the middle of a competitive three-game road trip; Lillard himself took on the onus, building a 13-point highlight reel for himself before the game’s first commercial break.
While it would be ambitious to say the Blazers were in Playoff-mode, they certainly had that mentality. Using the Pelicans’ defensive switches against them and the attention Lillard commands, the Blazers routinely found matchups they liked, threw on their boots and camouflage, and went hunting. From Lillard splitting between the defense on picks to taking two Pelicans with him and kicking it back out, Portland ensured that the first quarter would be remembered with a single question:
How do you make a team forget that you’re the No. 29-ranked defense in the NBA? Well, you remind them that they rank No. 27, of course.
In a battle where offense trumped all, Portland overcame a balanced Pelicans offense to take a 35-30 lead into the second quarter.
The start of the second quarter had an old-school vibe, with Carmelo Anthony and Zion Williamson seeking offense through brute strength and force. The Blazers added yet another example of “friendly fire” — where a teammate inadvertently hits another — with Anthony and Robert Covington. It may not be anything worth monitoring but it deserves a note, as does Lillard’s leg tweak late in that quarter.
The six-minute stretch to open the second quarter, in a way, makes one appreciate Lillard a bit more. With him on the bench, the Blazers’ offense becomes a bit more inefficient; they mustered just eight points, and the difficulty the second unit sometimes has in scoring is palpable.
By the time Lillard could break a second sweat, the Blazers’ five-point lead turned into a deficit. Portland’s defensive “moxie” betrayed them, too. Rotations were a step slower, and the Blazers being stuck in the penalty limited their aggressiveness. No lead is ever a lock with No. 0 on the floor, but the Pelicans gave themselves a chance to throw away the key with a 10-point halftime lead and standout performances from Williamson and Lonzo Ball.
On the Pelicans’ League Pass feed, Joel Myers offered a harrowing thought that predictably became the theme of the third quarter: “We must take care of this third quarter before worrying about Dame Time.” Lillard anchored a creative scoring attack where the Blazers scored in nearly every way. They preyed on offensive rebounds like hound dogs, kicking back out to the perimeter for 3-point scores.
Robert Covington, who entered this game hitting 18 of his last 42 3-pointers, picked an especially ideal time to percolate. This go-round, the Blazers didn’t rest Lillard in the latter end of the third, and a steady dose of: (1) aggressiveness from Lillard and Anthony and (2) high-fives from Zion Williamson on the bench gave the Blazers a slight lead in the fourth.
Predictably, the beginning of the fourth quarter boiled down to a central question: could the Blazers’ No. 15-ranked bench be able to score enough to give Lillard a rest?
Portland’s bench was sufficient, but perhaps even more importantly, the Blazers locked in on a defensive attack that kept Brandon Ingram at bay for most of the game. With a mix of hard shows, a big ready to clamp down and offer a double on his drives, and flat-out length contesting his perimeter shots, Portland’s focus on him was difficult to ignore in a relatively low-scoring final frame.
And not that this should come as a surprise, the Trail Blazers were well taken care of on the other end of the floor. Over the Blazers last six possessions, Lillard had a 3-pointer, an and-one, two assists, and a turnover that he overcame. The conventional three-point play gave Portland the decisive lead.
Simply put, Lillard again put his imprint on the fourth quarter. On the last possession, the Blazers contained Ingram on a potential go-ahead game-tying shot, and left the Bay Area with a two-point win.
The Blazers return to the comforts of their own home for a battle with the suddenly-dangerous Washington Wizards on Saturday, 7 p.m. PT.