The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t require a heroic, improbable comeback from Damian Lillard on Thursday night to hold off the energized but inexperienced New Orleans Pelicans team. Portland used a complete team effort to manufacture a 101-93 victory. With the win they improve to 24-16 on the season and move back into fifth place in the crowded Western Conference standings.
Damian Lillard led the way with 36 points, and Enes Kanter chipped in a double-double with 16 points and 13 boards.
The Blazers made an early effort to get CJ McCollum in the mix, going to him in each of the first few possessions. The results were unfruitful, as he struggled to find a shooting rhythm. McCollum’s craftiness is there, the finishing just needs work...understandable after a two-month hiatus. After New Orleans jumped out to an early lead, Lillard quickly took back the reins and resumed control, continuing the campaign of destruction he has unleashed upon the Pelicans over the past two games. Lillard picked up right where he left off after Tuesday’s 50-point Hail Mary comeback win, scoring 21 points in the opening period to help seize a semi-comfortable lead for Portland. He did it mostly from beyond the arc, sinking five triples in the quarter, emphatically saying, “You didn’t think I’d be going away, did you?” Meanwhile, the Pelicans also went back to what worked for them in the last matchup. Brandon Ingram, who was effective early with 10 points in the quarter. His length gave the Blazers problems, whether he was slicing to the basket or spotting up from deep, but fortunately he didn’t make them pay too badly. Portland gladly hopped on the back of Lillard and rode his brilliance to a 31-23 lead after one.
The second quarter was much more subdued, with both sides struggling to find consistent offense. With Dame on the bench, the Blazers made the rim hum with the clang of missed threes, as if they were more interested in the geometry of the bounce the ball would take than scoring. In particular, Gary Trent Jr. struggled mightily, missing all four of his attempts, going 0-6 overall in the half. Luckily, New Orleans returned the favor and had trouble manufacturing offense themselves when Ingram or Zion Williamson sat. Both teams were probably happy to just trade punches while its stars got enough rest to go back at it in the second half. Portland led 57-48 at the break.
And back at it they went. Lillard and Kanter worked the two-man game well, abusing the now bright-as-the-sun spotlight shining on on Lillard to earn easy buckets in the paint. But at the other end, Portland’s Williamson-sized problem continued to materialize. The human bowling ball was quiet early but found the pocket coming into the third quarter. If he caught the ball within 8 feet of the basket, the Blazers might as well have hustled back on offense. Whether defenders were draped over him or non-existent, Williamson would bully himself to a bucket. Lillard kept doing his thing, but the Pelicans started to crawl back. Portland held a 77-70 lead going into the final frame.
With New Orleans nipping at their heels, the Blazers tried to put the game away using the three ball. Unlike Tuesday, some of Lillard’s magic started to wear off. Lonzo Ball tightened the screws on defense and Dame was held scoreless in the quarter until he was sent to the line in the final minute. This left the supporting cast with the task of closing out the game. The Pelicans attacked the rim with reckless abandon, eventually pulling within five points, but timely threes from Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., along with steady free throws down the stretch from Kanter were enough to stave off a comeback. Portland was able to escape with another win.
Trent Jr. continued his recent shooting slump with a rough 1-11 performance, including 0-6 from deep. He had good looks all night but they just weren’t falling. This kind of thing is bound to happen to every young shooter, and his frustration has been visible, but he’ll just have to work through it and try to put it behind him.
Lillard finished the game with 36 points and zero assists - his only game without a dime all season.
The Blazers will play the first of two home games against the Dallas Mavericks tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Pacific.