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Blazers Struggle to Defend Pelicans’ Stars, Collapse in 121-110 Loss

Despite a spirited first three quarters and a 41-point game from Damian Lillard, the Blazers again come up short against New Orleans.

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

On a night headlined by the first-ever matchup between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the New Orleans Pelicans’ size advantage, superior depth and defensive adjustments would ultimately become the dominant story of the night. Shaking off a halftime deficit and a few spirited Blazers runs, the Pelicans flew away in the end with a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in 121-110 fashion.

The stars came to play in this primetime duel, with Lillard guiding Portland with a 41-point, eight-rebound outing — and somehow, his first zero assist game since Nov. 30, 2015 — with Jerami Grant providing reinforcements with a 28-point game. On the Pelicans’ side, Brandon Ingram proved unimpeachable, pulling up whenever he pleased, on the way to a 40-point, six-rebound, five-assist performance, and McCollum backing him with a 24-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist game.

In a game in which Portland could’ve taken sole possession of the No. 10 seed, the loss unfortunately drops them to 29-33, and into No. 12 out West. Below are a few quarter-for-quarter observations from tonight’s loss.

First Quarter:

Apologies in advance if you came into this game thinking the first-ever Lillard vs. McCollum duel would immediately command top billing. Six minutes into the game, the Pelicans’ defense made it fairly evident that they had no interest in entertaining a shootout among the Blazers’ former stars; at every turn on his pick-and-roll, Lillard saw traps, which forced his teammates to open their creativity.

Instead, fans were treated to an unexpected-but-just-as-interesting opening quarter duel between Brandon Ingram and Cam Reddish. Ingram, in particular, really took the onus upon himself to be aggressive during McCollum’s break, blasting the Blazers’ defense with high screen-and-rolls to take advantage of size advantages and pull-up opportunities. As you might expect, it wasn’t very long before the Blazers were forced to break out that word that starts with “z” and rhymes with “zone.”

One fun, potentially-unexpected wrinkle was seeing McCollum take on the assignment of guarding Lillard, possession-for-possession. Of course, like anything else when it comes to defending the seven-time All-Star, it might work for a brief time, but it wouldn’t be long before the code was cracked. In the meantime, Reddish proved up to the challenge, going on a personal 11-0 run, dueling with Ingram — who put up 12 shots in the opening quarter alone — and that helped propel Portland to a 31-29 advantage.

Second Quarter:

Fresh, rested, and playing against the Blazers’ backups, McCollum opened the quarter in what he often called “shark mode,” picking his spots with an assortment of pull-ups and floaters, sifting into his playmaking skills along the way. On the other end, they ran their defensive with a similar approach with Simons that they did with Lillard.

Defensively, it proved high time for the Blazers to make an adjustment, prompting Chauncey Billups to run his trusted zone defense, along with some full court press, to boot. It worked well in spurts, slowing the Pelicans’ flow and keeping them out of the middle of the floor on occasion. It certainly helped that, on a court filled with All-Stars, both past and present, Jerami Grant was the next to make his presence felt, with a personal run to help Portland retake the lead.

From a competitive standpoint, the game itself went about as one would expect from a 30-32 team and a 29-32 one; it proved nip-and-tuck, with Portland holding a slight edge — remarkable in that the Pelicans had taken nearly triple the free attempts that Portland did. Ultimately, Portland found just enough of an offensive rebounding edge, and enough success having Lillard splitting the double screen-and-rolls as they worked their way to a slight 56-53 edge at halftime.

Third Quarter:

For a brief period, it appeared as though the Trail Blazers were close to finding the needed recipe to defeating the Pelicans on this night. In what was a back-and-forth affair, Portland opened up an eight-point edge — their biggest of the night — on the backs of hustle plays leading to 3-pointers for Lillard.

Credit to Willie Green and the Blazers’ coaching staff; whatever his message was following the timeout, the vibe had immediately shifted, with the Pelicans using their own 8-0 run to claw back.

One tangible factor the Pelicans had going for them is that the 3-point shot finally proved kind to them; after hitting a 2000s-esque two 3-pointers in the first half alone, they opened a perfect 4-of-4 in this quarter. On the Blazers’ side, Lillard had begun to find his way, up to a dozen free throw attempts (and arguably, he should have had more). Along the way, he also found time to be the Blazers’ leading rebounder.

One question worth asking late in the third quarter, as it often is: how would the Blazers survive in those Lillard-less minutes? It felt doubly important, given that: (a) Jerami Grant wasn’t in the game, either, and (b) Simons appeared to suffer a lower leg injury once again. Already on a minutes restriction, Simons would again be ruled out midway through the fourth.

Under that suspense, the Blazers still found a way to take a brief one-point advantage after three, leading 91-90, largely on the backs of Lillard’s heroics.

Fourth Quarter:

The fourth quarter winner, it seemed, would ultimately be the one capable of making the most counters. On the Blazers’ side, figuring out how to navigate through the Pelicans’ defensive focus — two defenders including a 7-footer in Jaxson Hayes on Lillard — forced Portland into that suboptimal strategy of having the supporting cast try and elevate their games.

On the other end, McCollum seemed to sense a little blood in the water with the Pelicans clinging to a slight lead. Helping provide the Pelicans with a little bit of leeway, McCollum got some reinforcements in the form of his running mate in Brandon Ingram. Anchored by their stars, the Pelicans put together a 15-4 run, fueling a 109-99 lead with 5:13 left.

On the other end, the Blazers remained in a tough spot in finding offense without Lillard, with the Pelicans running everything from a box-and-1 to faceguarding the Blazers star on his cuts. That much was evident in the quarter-for-quarter numbers: after scoring 31, 25 and 35 over the first three periods, Portland could only muster 10 points over the first 10 minutes of the fourth. Ultimately, the end was to be found shortly thereafter, with the Pelicans putting the finishing touches on for a 121-110 victory.

Up Next:

Keep eyes out for Ryne Buchanan’s extended look at tonight’s game soon.

Box Score

The Blazers open up the first of their six-game, 11-day road trip, starting with a Mar. 3 duel against the Atlanta Hawks.