For most teams, a 17-point deficit with six minutes remaining means it’s time to throw on the jumpsuits and look ahead on the schedule. Fortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, most teams don’t have a Damian Lillard. Anchored by a 50-point, 10-assist masterpiece from their superstar, Portland clawed back from the deepest of depths to break the New Orleans Pelicans’ hearts, stealing a gritty home win in the process.
If you missed the quarter-by-quarter recap of this topsy-turvy outing, see Dave Deckard’s Instant Recap for the lowdown.
The Blazers’ improbable win moved them to 23-16, and back into a two-way tie with Denver for the No. 5 seed in the West. On a night filled with highs, lows, and confusion, here are a few thoughts that stood out.
Lillard’s Legend Grows In Win:
Even on a night where the Pelicans’ star duo of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram combined for nearly 60 points, CJ McCollum made his return, and Portland’s defense again left much to be desired, this game was all about the brilliance of Damian Lillard. Early on, Lillard became just the fourth player in NBA history to record 16,000+ points and 4,000+ assists in his first nine seasons (LeBron, Bird, and the Big O are the other three), and he added to the allure with a pantheon performance tonight.
TNT analyst Reggie Miller made mention of Lillard being the “scariest man in the building” midway through the fourth, and the floodgates officially opened. Lillard did everything from grabbing clutch rebounds (as the smallest man on the court) to helping generate stops. And oh, did we also mention Lillard scored 50 points? On 20 shots?
Portland trailed 117-100 with 5:56 remaining. Lillard had 20 in the fourth quarter alone. Only fitting. That he did it while battling a hand injury and taking countless falls along the way only adds to the legend.
No ‘Tryin on Zion:
The central theme for the Pelicans this season has been their inability to cultivate energy on a night-to-night basis. In front of the national audience tonight, they looked up to the challenge. Zion Williamson owned the paint the way you might expect your local hardware store to, using cuts and downhill drives to throw down dunks … as well as any humans who wanted to come along for the ride at their own peril. In perfect symphony, All-Star teammate Brandon Ingram matched him point-for-point with his perimeter game.
Those in the Oregon area might do well investing in a “Get Well Soon” card for Robert Covington and the rest of the Blazers’ forwards. Normally teams run specific sets or spacing cuts to open and attack the middle. For New Orleans, the ideology was simple: feed Williamson on the low block or dish to him as he’s building a head of steam and the Red Sea will part. [ed. It was a Grey Sea tonight. Those uniforms.] Williamson bowled his way into the paint, and Portland seemed content to simply take cover, step back, and catch it out of the net.
The Pelicans remained aggressors, blitzing their way into 56 points in the paint — for reference, this would tie for No. 1 in the NBA — and paired with extraordinary weak side shooting from Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart, and Lonzo Ball, it was a recipe that routinely put Portland in the pressure cooker.
McCollum Has Up-and-Down Performance in Return:
Barring some remarkable circumstance — such as exactly what happened tonight — the top story for the Blazers at the end of the night was always going to center around the return of CJ McCollum. The star guard returned after a 25-game absence, and even though he was going to be on an obvious minutes restriction, it always seemed plausible that his sheer presence would be enough to motivate the troops.
McCollum’s brief 26-minute cameo went about as reasonably expected. The Blazers worked him through the usual assortment of pindowns and cuts to get him to his spots, and he finished with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting.
As anticipated, his touch was inconsistent, ranging from accurate to short on a few of his longer jumpers. The Blazers’ defense didn’t seem to be energized by his return, but given that this was his first game in exactly two months, panicking feels premature. The likes of Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony made up for it.
After one quarter, it appeared a duel of star tandems was brewing. Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard, and McCollum combined for 44 first quarter points. The suspense didn’t last, but thanks to a pair of free throw clanks from Ingram, the door remained open for the Blazers to have the last laugh.
Defensive Inconsistencies Emphasized Despite Primetime Win:
In just the first half alone, the Trail Blazers tried everything from man-to-man to different variations of zone defense. But as the score so often reflected, the end result remained the same: a defensive miscue, and a New Orleans score.
At times, it seemed Portland’s only hope was to try and sneak a sixth Blazer onto the court and hope the referee didn’t notice.
On occasion the Blazers would get the initial stop, but that’s all for naught if players in the zone don’t then get on the glass.
As we’ve come to understand, there’s no foolproof way for defending Zion Williamson, especially when his teammates hit 16 3-pointers the way they did tonight. The Blazers did put the padlock on the Pelicans and threw away the key over the last few minutes. But the amount of corner 3-pointers given up and weak side buckets teams are scoring remain at an alarming rate.
In short: it shouldn’t take a 50-point Lillard night for the Blazers to win by one. But for tonight, celebration.
The Blazers play the second set of a back-to-back against the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, 7 pm PT.