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Defense, Team Effort Earn Blazers Win over Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Damian Lillard always makes Portland proud. Tonight his teammates stepped up as well.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that looked like a rock fight compared to the previous shootout, the Portland Trail Blazers beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-93 at the Moda Center on Thursday evening. Damian Lillard led all scorers with 36 points and Enes Kanter put together another double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Zion Williamson topped the Pelicans tonight with 26 points and 10 rebounds on the night.

You can find a quarter-by-quarter description of this game in Ryan Rosback’s Instant Recap. After you’ve seen that, here are six observations from tonight’s action.

Improved Defensive Effort

The Blazers had a good defensive night! Unlike Tuesday’s game where they looked incapable of guarding one of the cars on display at Lillard’s car dealership, Portland played with aggression and held the Pelicans to under 40% shooting from the floor and 27% shooting from outside. Considering the Blazers were letting teams score 120 like it was nothing just last week, it was a huge improvement.

It wasn’t always perfect. There was still nothing Portland could do to stop Zion, but truthfully, no one can really stop him. It was honestly a blessing that Brandon Ingram kept trying to initiate the action instead of Williamson. Otherwise, this paragraph about an improved effort might not exist because Williamson would’ve had 40-plus. But overall, it was a truly impressive defensive effort.

Lillard Is Great, But Everyone Stepped Up

Damian Lillard carried over his fantastic performance from last game tonight with a 36-point display. 21 of those points came in the first quarter alone and 26 in the first half. While the second half wasn’t quite as spectacular, the first half set the tone for how this game would play out. Lillard continues to cement himself as an MVP candidate.

Lillard only had 10 points in the second half. A team effort lifted Portland above the Pelicans towards the end, specifically on the defensive end. It’s always a treat to see a win that doesn’t stem from just Lillard being absolutely dominant, or at least not, “I have to score 50 points” dominant. It was an ugly win, but it was a team win.

How Does CJ McCollum Look?

Well, he’s working on it. It was a tough night for McCollum. He shot 3-for-16 from the field, with those three buckets all coming from three. He played hard and it looked like he wasn’t horribly affected by his foot, but his shooting was undoubtedly off.

Even so, McCollum looked comfortable enough to shake Jaxson Hayes with a hesitation dribble in the fourth. It’s one of those plays that we won’t see a highlight of because he missed, but it signaled to me that McCollum is working his way back to game speed.

It’s going to be a tough road back, especially considering the difficult schedule ahead. The second half of the COVID-shortened season is going to be brutal for both McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic as they return. How well they acclimate could very well determine the direction Portland’s season goes. With back-to-backs becoming a regular occurrence, both returning stars will be thrown in the deep end.

Is Nassir Little Cooling Off?

Remember in February when we thought Nassir Little was the best shooter to ever grace a basketball court? No? I was the only one who thought that? Okay, cool...well anyways, Little is cooling down a bit. He never had a big sample size to begin with, so it’s not entirely surprising that his percentage from outside is dropping after shooting lights-out from three for a whole month. But still, I’d like to see him not miss his only two threes of the night.

But I also don’t want his missed threes to distract from the things Little did well tonight. He grabbed six boards and had a steal and a block, playing with his trademark energy. That’s what you expect from him; the stellar shooting was just a bonus.

Little is starting to level off, but I still believe the shooting improvements are real.

Speaking of Cooling Off....

Gary Trent Jr. isn’t making shots like he used to. Coming into this game, he was shooting only 36% from the field and 32% from three in his past 10 appearances. He made a single field goal tonight on 11 total attempts, going 0-for-6 from three. He still played with energy defensively, but his value will almost always lie with what he does on offense.

Is this going to be the trend from Trent Jr.? Will he alternate between being an absolute flamethrower and bricking every shot for different stretches for the rest of his career? We don’t need to make judgments on career trajectories here, but GTJ is the kind of guy who lets the ball fly with reckless abandon. Such players get cold every now and then. Most likely, this is just a tough streak from Trent and he’ll get back in a rhythm sometime soon. There’s no need to panic.

DJJ Flies Everywhere

This was a real fun night from Derrick Jones Jr. A fair portion of Portland’s defensive accomplishments stemmed directly from what Jones, Jr. was doing. He had a career-high four blocks along with two steals, including some impressive defensive sequences. My personal favorite was when he blocked Ingram on the fast break, recovered, and immediately blocked Williamson. It was an excellent sequence.

Unless he throws down a highlight jam, we don’t usually hear much from Jones, Jr. He’s a low-usage player who handles the tough assignments for a defense that generally isn’t very good. But on nights like this, his hard work is crucial for Portland. He didn’t contain anyone inside, but he made plays when asked and played a big role in Portland’s win.

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Instant Recap

Box Score

Next up, the Blazers will be on a short turnaround as they welcome the Dallas Mavericks to the Moda Center tomorrow. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. PT.