CJ McCollum returning to his long-time home dominated the initial headlines as the Portland Trail Blazers welcomed the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. The game also had implications into the post-season and beyond. New Orleans is in the midst of the fight for the Western Conference Play-In tournament. The Blazers might be getting the Pelicans’ lottery pick this summer if New Orleans doesn’t make it into the playoffs proper.
McCollum acquitted himself marvelously, scoring 25 on 9-16 shooting. Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, and Jaxson Hayes scored 19, 19, and 18 each. That combination proved too much for the Blazers to overcome. Drew Eubanks shot 10-12 to lead his team with 21 points, but Portland didn’t have enough height, muscle, or scoring power around him. 22 turnovers and 31 points given up on the break didn’t help the cause, as Portland fell 117-107.
Greg Brown III got his first career NBA start. So did CJ McCollum, though, at least as a Pelican in Portland. McCollum stroked back-to-back threes to begin his onslaught and the Blazers looked to be in trouble. That was confirmed after a couple turnovers. 2:30 into the game, New Orleans led 12-3.
Before another minute elapsed. the Pelicans’ steal total would rise to 5. They were on pace for 68.6 steals by the end of the game.
As a result of those steals, McCollum took the ball on the run, scoring his 10th point before the game was 4:00 old, adding to the misery.
The Blazers tried to keep pace by hitting three-pointers. They did. 12 of their first 15 points came beyond the arc. They kept hot through the period, too. It was like the spirit of Rick Barry and Larry Bird swept through Moda Center, kissing the fingertips of every Portland shooter.
As a result of unnaturally great shooting, The Blazers actually took a 26-22 lead with 4:20 remaining. A little bit of lane work after was enough to expand the edge, in theory. In practice, Portland committed too many turnovers (and gave up too many offensive rebounds with their small bench lineup) to make it work. Still, they led 36-32 after one.
Portland didn’t hit many shots at the start of the second, but they kept the Pelicans from scoring too. They went into that scrappy, messy, lunge-at-everything defensive stance that has alternately delighted and horrified observers, depending on the opponent’s ability to work around it. The Pelicans couldn’t. It looked like the Blazers were working harder.
We often pan the zone defense when Portland throws it, but at this moment, it worked. New Orleans didn’t seem to know how to solve it short of iso, mid-range attempts.
The trend would hold through most of the second period.
Portland shot horribly. In the first 11 minutes of the period, they hit exactly 3 field goals. People shooting for timeout gifts do better. But other than a half-dozen shots at the rim, New Orleans didn’t hit anything either. Instead the teams traded turnovers, misses, and the occasional free throw.
Obviously, this favored Portland, by virtue of the talent gap between the two teams. Any period in which they didn’t get blown out was a victory for the Blazers, even if they only scored 18 points, total, in the frame. McCollum had 19 points at intermission, but Greg Brown III, sporting magic goggles, hit 3 of his 4 three-pointers in the half. CJ Elleby added 6-7 on free throws. Portland led 54-51 at the break. Sometimes, ugly spends. Especially when ugly shoots 41% from the three-point arc.
Portland scored efficiently at the start of the third, particularly impressive since the Pelicans had a big, fat target painted on that end of the floor. Drew Eubanks made himself available against a too-aggressive pursuing defense that forgot about him. He scored Portland’s first 8 points of the period. New Orleans was nowhere near as deft.
The problem was, Portland only took half the shots, thanks to miscues, rebounds, and a decent pick-and-roll attack from New Orleans. Had the Pels also hit free throws, it would have gotten ugly.
The Blazers turned momentum mid-quarter by cleaning up their board work. They stopped New Orleans from threatening second shots, generating their own instead. Those interior shots helped make up for the three-point shooting going cold as moon ice. New Orleans’ free throws gave them a small advantage, but the Blazers would trade that for not hearing PA Announcer Mark Mason call CJ McCollum’s name every second trip down the floor. New Orleans led 85-82 after three.
With the scoreboard separated by a single possession, the fourth period was go time.
Portland came out with their trusty zone, the same one that had worked well in the first half. The Pelicans were ready this time. They swung the ball cross-court to shooters, forcing Portland defenders to rotate. That’s not a Blazers specialty. New Orleans went up 8.
Portland closed that lead with interior play and a couple shots by newcomer Reggie Perry that surprised nearly everyone on the floor. Still, you could feel the waves ebbing out. The Blazers had to work hard to close it to 3, and then to 5, and the margin just kept getting bigger. Going into the penalty didn’t help Portland’s cause.
The Blazers stayed strong in the lane throughout the period, but the three-point shooting that had given them air in the early parts of the game was largely absent. Without those extra points, it became a matter of guys named McCollum, Ingram, and Valanciunas going shot-for-shot against guys whose names nobody knew three weeks ago (and most still don’t now). The extra height, experience, and talent on the Pelicans’ side were just too much to overcome.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from the game!
The Blazers travel to San Antonio to face the Spurs on Friday night at 5:30, Pacific, the first of back-to-back games against the Spurs.