CJ McCollum returned for the Portland Trail Blazers tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans, causing Blazers fans to burst into strains of “Ode to Joy” at the sight of their star guard in uniform. As it turned out, “Easy to be Hard” by Three Dog Night would have been a more appropriate anthem. The Blazers struggled on the defensive end against Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson all night long. Everything they tried looked like calculus done blindfolded in a windstorm. No amount of three-point shooting could overcome the difficulty. The Pelicans scored at a rate of 30 per quarter and played good enough “D” to prevent the Blazers from doing same. Damian Lillard fueled a huge, 16-0 run midway through the fourth to give his team life. Since New Orleans was up 17 at that point, the comeback seemed all but impossible. But impossible and Damian Lillard don’t belong in the same sentence together. 50 points from the superstar gave the Blazers an incredible 125-124 victory after defeat was all but guaranteed.
McCollum scored 10 in his return. Williamson had 28 and Ingram added 30. The Blazers scored 43 points in the final, decisive frame.
CJ McCollum wasted no time in making his presence known, hoisting up four three-point attempts in the first quarter. He hit two, and the Blazers were in business. They worked the high screen and roll to exhaustion, trying to take advantage of the relative lack of mobility in the New Orleans frontcourt. It worked, too. The problem was, Brandon Ingram went nuclear on the other end, sinking everything from threes to layups. Portland’s defense, especially inside, couldn’t live up to the offense. The ball movement from the Pelicans showed that they understood Portland’s weakness and were ready to exploit it. Every field goal the Pels hit in the first quarter was assisted. A dunk from Zion Williamson staked them to a 23-15 lead midway through, but Lillard led a charge back near the end of the period. He was draining threes and taking names, and he forgot his notepad to take names on. Gary Trent, Jr. added to the chorus with one of his own. As it has so many times, the triple brought Portland back. Ingram had 13 in the period, Williamson 10, but the Blazers hit 6 threes to stay within shouting distance. New Orleans led 34-28 after one.
The Pelicans massacred the Blazers in the paint to start the second quarter. Williamson had no pity; his teammates followed suit. The lead got to 43-32 before Terry Stotts called a “Wait a Minute” timeout. Portland shut off the constant flow of dunks for New Orleans, but their own offense went quiet at the same time. They couldn’t eat into the lead. When the Pelicans hit a couple jumpers, the margin ballooned to 51-35 and Stotts called another timeout, this time with likely-unprintable intentions. Lillard helped his team string together a couple buckets, but by this time it felt like the Blazers were giving up as many points after turnovers as they were scoring themselves. Portland played man-to-man; the Pelicans passed for layups. Portland switch to zone; the Pelicans hit threes. Whatever “it” was, it just wasn’t working. New Orleans led 64-50 at the half.
If the Blazers planned to turn the game at the start of the second half. their defense didn’t show it. New Orleans went inside again. Portland countered with threes. In a reversal of fortune, though, the Pelicans started turning over the ball. Those were the only possessions in which they didn’t score, but the sheer volume of TO’s started to add up. Portland got the margin back to single-digits and the comeback was on. But you can’t make a comeback without defense and the Blazers never played any, at least not for sustained periods. Derrick Jones, Jr. hit the occasional three—an unexpected boost—but New Orleans easily matched his production. The Pelicans maintained a 9-12 point lead for most of the period. The more Portland hustled, the more imbalanced their defense became and the easier New Orleans found it to pass around them. Pels point guard Lonzo Ball had a career-high 16 assists by the end of the third quarter. New Orleans led 95-82 entering the fourth.
The Blazers needed the rally flag at the start of the fourth. It looked an awful lot like a surrender flag instead, They hit even more threes, but allowed just as many. And they still couldn’t counter the Pelicans’ inside game. The situation just didn’t get any better until the 6:00 mark when Portland made a 16-0 run to close within 1, 117-116. Lillard was at the heart of it with two threes, a layup, and an assist to Trent, Jr. for another three. Eric Bledsoe closed them down again with a revenge three and the game was on, 2:00 remaining. Carmelo Anthony and Zion exchanged buckets, then Lillard drove for a conventional three-point play. Then Williamson scored again. Lillard missed a three, leaving Portland down 124-121.
With less than 24 seconds left, the Blazers fouled intentionally. Incredibly, Ingram missed two free throws with 7 seconds left on the clock. The Blazers had a chance to tie with the final possession. Instead, the Pelicans fouled Lillard before he could shoot. Dame sunk both, and now New Orleans led by 1 with 5 seconds remaining.
As the parade of the improbable continued. the Pelicans muffed the inbounds pass. The ball fell out of bounds, leaving Portland a chance to win with any shot.
As Lillard pulled up for a long two with 1.2 seconds remaining, Bledsoe fouled him on the arm. Lillard calmly sank both free throws. New Orleans got a long pass to Williamson, but he missed the defended turn-around at the buzzer. After a lousy game for 42 minutes, the Blazers won in the most astounding way possible.
Stay tuned for our Extended Recap with analysis from Marlow Ferguson, Jr.!
Portland will face the Pelicans once again on Thursday night, at 7:00 PM, Pacific.