The Portland Trail Blazers fought hard against the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night, entering the fray with a rotation featuring two players who joined the team in the last week and four more who barely play. They managed to push a Western Conference playoffs team into the fourth quarter, holding high-scoring guard CJ McCollum to just 8 points in the process. But New Orleans had too much talent, continuity, and just plain height for the Blazers to pull out the victory. The Pelicans, up by just 5 in the closing minutes of the game, streaked away to a 93-84 win.
Jerami Grant led the Blazers with 24 points. Trey Murphy III produced 24 for the Pelicans in response.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are some other keys that typified the game.
The word is out on Portland’s offense. What opposing teams used to do to Anfernee Simons when he was healthy, they now do to Jerami Grant. Grant saw double-team attention early in the game, forcing him to take tortuous shots or (more often), give it up to teammates.
A couple of those teammates came through, which we’ll talk about in a minute. Once the Blazers proved they could score from other positions, particularly inside, Grant started seeing single-coverage on the perimeter again. Predictably, he shone in those situations.
When the game got close late, though, the Pelicans returned to their Grant-hawking ways. The only shots he saw clearly were angle three-pointers. Anything else, he attempted with hands in his face, chest, and front pocket.
Portland fans shouldn’t sleep on JG carrying the team right now. The opposition knows and respects it enough to dedicate their defense to stopping him.
Grant had 4 assists to go along with his 24 points, but also 4 turnovers. He shot 7-17 from the field, 2-5 from the arc.
Ayton to the Fore
With Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, and Malcolm Brogdon all on the sidelines, the next logical option in Portland’s offense after Grant is center Deandre Ayton. He set up camp dead center, from rim to the foul line. Absent any penetration threats, nobody else in the lineup could lay claim to that space. It was like Ayton moved into a big apartment complex all by himself, sitting on any couch he pleased and raiding all the refrigerators.
On the upside, Ayton got 18 points from 9-18 shooting tonight, both large numbers for him. He proved a credible weapon. On the downside, tossing the ball to him slowed down Portland’s offense. They’re not exactly scintillating under normal circumstances. With a depleted roster featuring few threats, it was the right move. Ayton looked enegetic, engaged, and happy out there too. He added 17 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks to his scoring.
We’re all familiar with Matisse Thybulle’s prescient defense in the passing lanes. Tonight he tried to fill in on offense too, doing a little ball-handling and playmaking. Results were mixed. He doesn’t have a pull-up shot. Defenders played him for the layup when he put the ball on the floor, leaving him without separation. Teammates didn’t know how to play off him either.
Ashton Hagans started at point and looked more natural at the position, but New Orleans read correctly that he wouldn’t be shooting or scoring much. They dared him to make a play. He took care of the ball, but not much more.
Danalo Banton also started some sets. He didn’t look familiar or comfortable initiating, but he shot more eagerly than the other two. He finished the game with 12 points on 5-14 shooting.
Combine this and you have a line of 24 points, 8 assists, and 9-24 shooting (2-10 from the arc) in 77 minutes for Portland’s three playmaking guards. That’s not going to cut it, obviously.
Brandon Ingram Huge
Brandon Ingram had a stat line of 17 points and 9 assists on 8-21 shooting. That percentage isn’t great, but it hardly mattered.
The visual dissonance between the forward and his defenders was striking. Nothing shows Portland’s inherent disadvantage on “D” quite as much as watching a 6’8 dude tower over them like the love child of Kevin Durant and Manute Bol. Their propensity to switch certainly doesn’t help things, nor does their use of zone defenses. Ingram could pretty much choose his defender for much of the evening. The guys he selected all seemed to be 6’3. Enough said.
That said, Camara, Banton, and Kris Murray—the 6’8 forwards—provided plenty of energy on defense. They are the archetypal height of players for a switch-intensive defensive system. They’re also young and willing as heck. If the three of them were stars, Portland would become an instant championship contender. As it is, the Blazers’ small group of young small forwards are pretty easy to root for. Their hustle—and the occasional breakaways they occasion—bring life to the game.
The map of New Orleans’ made shots looked like a capital “T”, with the center bar extending straight out from the rim to the top of the arc and the cross bar running down the baseline. When the Pelicans weren’t scoring right down the middle, they had fairly simple kick-outs to the sidelines for open threes. The Blazers in their current incarnation (Grant, Ayton, and Jabari Walker in the frontcourt) just aren’t fast enough to get out and cover the corners. Nobody they sub in makes a huge difference. When they get fast enough to make it to the perimeter, they’re so small that the opponent just rams in inside on them again.
There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing the Blazers scramble like heck on defense, especially on pick-and-rolls, only to end up in mismatches and slow rotations that give the opponent the shots they wanted anyway.
Granted, New Orleans did miss most of the shots they took from diagonal angles. There just weren’t enough of them to turn the tide.
The Pelicans shot 47.4% from the field, 37.6% from the arc, but those numbers were at 50% and 40% for most of the game.
The Blazers host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start time.