As the immortal Jerry Reed reminded the world in 1971, when you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not. And the Portland Trail Blazers are not hot.
The Blazers faced the New Orleans Pelicans without Damian Lillard on Sunday evening. They also lined up without any defense, scoring punch, or apparently much pride. Even without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans housed their guests in the first period and barely looked back on the way to a 127-110 victory. At one point, the Blazers trailed by 39.
Anfernee Simons scored 17 in the loss, shooting 7-15 from the field against stiff pressure. He went 2-7 from distance, foreshadowing Portland’s 10-33, 30.3% overall performance from the arc. Matisse Thybulle added 10 and Cam Reddish 11 for the starters, while four Blazers scored in double figures off the bench, led by Shaedon Sharpe and Kevin Knox II with 14 each.
Trey Murphy III scored a career-high 41 for the Pelicans, shooting 13-20 from the field and 9-14 from the arc. CJ McCollum added 22.
The loss drops Portland to 31-37, a full 6 games below .500 in the race for the 2023 NBA Playoffs...which now looks very much like a trip to the postseason Play-In Tournament, if anything. The Pelicans now lead the tiebreaker between the teams 2-1, with a single game remaining and the teams separated by two losses.
Here’s how the game went.
The Blazers survived about five minutes without Damian Lillard which, to be fair, is about four minutes and thirty seconds more than anybody thought they would. Anfernee Simons scored a couple of times at the cup as Portland’s forwards set each other up for shots. It was enough for a 10-8 edge at the 8:00 mark of the period.
Then turnovers started a cascade of easy shots for New Orleans against a scrambling, and often bumbling, defense CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III seemed to take Portland’s existence personally, blistering them with shot after shot that ballooned the lead to 15, 31-16, just four minutes later. Soon after Jerami Grant took an elbow to the eye on a shot attempt, sending him to the locker room with a visage that looked like week-old potato salad. That didn’t help matters much.
Helping even less: the Lillard-less Blazers opened the game 1-5 from distance while New Orleans shot 7-10. And that’s in Portland’s advantage category.
It’s not like the Blazers failed to score. They actually shot 60% from the field in the quarter. But miscues limited them to 15 shot attempts total, plus they allowed 60% in return, 8 points on the break. New Orleans led 42-25 after one.
Portland made a sparkly run at the start of the second behind even more scoring from Simons and the wings, but McCollum swatted them back with a couple buckets of his own. Portland’s zone defense had CJ slipping in his own drool. On the other end, the Blazers had no playmaking to back up their individual scorers. Simons tried to press the issue, but his buckets weren’t enough to divert the parade of turnovers and bricks. Pelicans turnovers provided a thin thread saving the Blazers from oblivion, but that was it.
Fortunately for Portland, Matisse Thybulle, Nassir Little, and Cam Reddish stayed active on defense and did manage to force those TO’s. It was one of the few times all season the zone paid real dividends...except, of course, when the Pels got it inside. Then it was still disaster.
Still, disruptive hands were enough to get Portland within single digits at the 5:00 mark...a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal half. But every time it looked like the Blazers would break through, the Law Offices of McCollum and Murphy would take them to court, usually via the three. Trendon Watford came strong as the half dwindled and Thybulle kept scoring like he was born to it, but New Orleans ran off an 10-0 run to close the period and led 74-54 at intermission.
Anfernee Simons had a dunk at the beginning of the third? That’s the good news, I guess. But the Pelicans started destroying Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers inside, bringing it to less than naught in a flash. When slow-as-frozen-molasses Jonas Valanciunas dunked on the fly—you read that right—with 8:08 remaining, New Orleans led 87-59, all but erasing the efforts of Simons and company.
That was the symbolic end of the game even before Herb Jones threw down a poster dunk in the halfcourt, or Murphy canned another three, or New Orleans went up by 30. The spark fizzled out of the offense as they devolved into isolation ball without their best isolation player in uniform. Meanwhile the defense had all the professional integrity of a Pepto Bismol jingle.
Surprisingly, Ryan Archidiacano could not stop Murphy, as New Orleans’ new All-NBA scorer was on a 14-point roll in the period. To be fair, Archidiacano may have been a little bit overmatched on those switches. Murphy hit three threes in a row in the final two minutes. The Pelicans led 109-73 after the third.
Any attempt to describe Portland’s defensive effort at this point would need to be in Spongebob font. We’ll just share one stat. At the 9:00 mark in the fourth, the Pelicans had 33 assists on 40 made buckets, a phenomenal 83% assist ratio. Portland’s deep reserves had a couple of nice moments during garbage time, but the monster underneath the compactor had long pulled them beneath the surface. There weren’t enough Kevin Knox points in the universe to make that better.
Stay tuned for analysis following the game.
With their six-game road swing complete, the Blazers get a day off, welcoming the New York Knicks to the Moda Center on Tuesday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.