Up until Saturday night, it had been four years since I attended a Portland Trail Blazers game. The last time was in March 2011, and was it ever memorable. That was the game Nicolas Batum ended with an alley-oop tip-in at the buzzer off an inbounds play to beat the San Antonio Spurs. As Portland prepared to take on the New Orleans Pelicans, I didn’t expect quite the ending–after all, how could I? What did take place, however, was nonetheless a thrilling back and forth affair that was similar to my previous Blazers experience in one way–the uptick in the Blazers record.
The Moda Center’s crowd was late-arriving, and this was fitting considering the team they settled in to see was late to arrive as well with New Orleans jumping out to a quick 16-6 lead behind the play of guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. The duo would continue to be aggressive in their own ways, Evans on drives to the basket and Gordon from the perimeter and long-range. The main instrument to the Pelicans success, do-everything forward Anthony Davis whom I was thrilled to see play in person, was off his game early, unable to especially excel from mid-range. Resulting was minimized damage on Portland’s end and a deficit capable of overcoming in front of what became a packed house ready to erupt at any sign of life.
That life appeared, as the Blazers took control to score 16 the first quarter’s final 24 points. They built off this success, largely orchestrated by LaMarcus Aldridge and CJ McCollum, to outscore the Pelicans by 14 in the second. A bench that has performed superbly lately caught fire as Davis continued to struggle. While McCollum, Steve Blake and Chris Kaman led the charge in that tide-turning second quarter, with a Meyers Leonard three-pointer sprinkled in for good measure, the team’s defense on Davis was as pivotal as their energy offensively. He, who has been an unstoppable force as one of the game’s premiere talents, has difficulty becoming his usual dominating self against the height and girth of the Blazers frontline. Additionally, Portland excelled in the help-defense department to cut off his angles to the basket and also create jumpers that just didn’t look comfortable. This help-defense was often minimalist, sometimes simply coming in the form of a flinch by a nearby defender into his direction, but it was key in holding him to just three first-half field goals.
That being said, New Orleans missed an opportunity to get him going after two of those field goals. Bracketing a missed hook-shot by Davis midway through the second quarter, they were two jumpers from the top of the key, created through the pick-and-roll and passes from Gordon and fellow guard Norris Cole. Davis was wide-open both times, rubbing off the pick to lose his defender. It looked so effortless, a play New Orleans could repeatedly run without consistent resistance. And yet, this wasn’t a recurring theme.
In spite of this, as is the case for many great players, even off nights can turn into productive ones. During a third quarter in which New Orleans stormed back into contention, Davis managed to put points on the board in a variety of ways while Evans and Gordon took turns maximizing their respective strengths. A 12-point halftime lead was whittled to three entering the fourth. Portland needed a spark. Maybe center Robin Lopez could hit one of those three-pointers he was draining effortlessly during pre-game shootaround.
Considering Lopez’s in-game arsenal revolves around attempts from 12 feet on in, that was unfortunately not to be. The Blazers saw their lead evaporate, as McCollum and Blake couldn’t mirror their second quarter production. After a wide-open three-pointer from Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson that deflated the 20,000-plus fans in attendance who let out a disgruntled “Ooh” in unison, the lead that was gone was now a margin extended to four, 81-77, with just over eight minutes remaining. Even though the deficit was minimal, the energy was similarly so on Portland’s end.
Not much was in their favor. Davis was getting the support he needed to mask his struggles, as Anderson’s three was part of a 9-2 run made possible entirely by the bench. For Portland, Aldridge wasn’t putting his usual stamp on the game. Damian Lillard was as quiet as the crowd after Pelicans makes. And all in all, despite the Blazers recent success, the absence of guard and heart and soul Wesley Matthews was undoubtedly felt. Maybe it was that this was the second of a back-to-back, tired legs and all that. Maybe it was the latest disappearing act of Lillard that has perplexingly reared its head at times this season. Maybe it was that Aaron Afflalo, as much as he tries, isn’t Matthews. Whatever it was, Portland didn’t look sharp.
And yet, it was then, with seemingly an injection of energy at the timeout following Anderson’s three-pointer, that the Blazers looked like a team rightfully fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Lillard woke up for Dame Time. Batum stepped up as he has so often since Matthews fell heartbreakingly to the floor. Aldridge took the initiative and played angry. And a Blazers defense that had been porous tightened up to aggressively halt Evans, Gordon and Davis. The result was a 13-point turnaround over the final eight minutes. The Moda Center fans were routinely brought out of their seats, as the quartet of Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum delivered, deflating a Pelicans team fighting for the postseason lives and sending streamers down from the rafters for the 50th time this season.