CJ McCollum returned for the Portland Trail Blazers tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans, causing Blazers fans to burst into “Ode to Joy” stumps at the sight of their star guard in uniform. In fact, Three Dog Night’s “Easy to be Hard” would have been a more fitting hymn. The Blazers struggled on the defensive end against Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson all night. Everything they tried looked like calculating blindfolded in a windstorm. No three-point shot could overcome the difficulty. The Pelicans scored at a rate of 30 per quarter and played “D” well enough to keep the Blazers from doing the same. Damian Lillard fueled a huge 16-0 run halfway through the fourth to bring his team to life. Considering New Orleans was up 17 at that time, the comeback seemed nearly impossible. But Impossible and Damian Lillard do not belong to the same sentence. Superstar’s 50 points gave the Blazers an incredible 125-124 victory after loss was almost guaranteed.
McCollum scored 10 on his return. Williamson was 28 and Ingram added 30. The Blazers scored 43 points in the tie-breaker final.
CJ McCollum was quick to make his presence known, hoisting four three-point attempts in the first quarter. He hit two and the Blazers were in business. They worked the screen high and rode to exhaustion, trying to take advantage of the relative lack of mobility in New Orleans’ frontcourt. It worked too. The problem was, Brandon Ingram went nuclear on the other end, sinking everything from threes to layups. Portland’s defense, especially on the inside, couldn’t live up to the offense. The Pelicans’ ball movement showed they understand Portland’s weakness and are ready to exploit it. Every basket from the field hit by the Pels in the first quarter was assisted. A Zion Williamson dunk put them 23-15 at the halfway point, but Lillard led a charge towards the end of the period. He was emptying three and taking names, and he forgot his notepad to take names. Gary Trent, Jr. added to the chorus with one of his own. As he has done so many times, the treble brought Portland back. Ingram was 13 in the period, Williamson 10, but the Blazers hit 6 threes to stay within earshot. New Orleans led 34-28 after one.
The Pelicans slaughtered the Blazers in the paint to start the second quarter. Williamson had no mercy; his teammates followed suit. The lead was increased to 43-32 before Terry Stotts announced a “Wait a Minute” timeout. Portland cut off the constant stream of dunks for New Orleans, but their own attack calmed down at the same time. They couldn’t take the lead. When the Pelicans hit a few jumpers the margin jumped to 51-35 and Stotts called another time out, this time with likely unprintable intentions. Lillard helped his team string together a few buckets, but at that point it felt like the Blazers were giving up as many points after turnovers they were scoring themselves. Portland played man to man; the pelicans were seen as layups. Portland goes into zone; the pelicans hit three. Either way, it just wasn’t working. New Orleans led 64-50 at the half.
If the Blazers were planning to run the game early in the second half. their defense has not shown it. New Orleans has returned to the interior. Portland retaliated by threes. In a makeshift reversal, however, the Pelicans began to flip the ball. These were the only possessions they hadn’t scored in, but TO volume began to pile up. Portland regained the single-digit margin and the comeback was on. But you can’t come back defenseless and the Blazers have never played one, at least not for extended periods. Derrick Jones, Jr. hit the casual three – an unexpected boost – but New Orleans easily matched its production. The Pelicans maintained a 9-12 point lead for most of the period. The more Portland was rushed, the more unbalanced their defense became and the easier New Orleans found to bypass them. Pels playmaker Lonzo Ball had 16 career assists at the end of the third quarter. New Orleans led 95-82 entering the fourth.
The Blazers needed the rally flag at the start of the fourth. It looked a lot like a surrender flag instead, they hit more than three more, but allowed as many. And they still couldn’t counter the Pelicans’ inner play. Things just didn’t improve until the 6:00 mark when Portland went 16-0 to close in 1, 117-116. Lillard was in the thick of it with two threes, a layup and an assist to Trent, Jr. for three more. Eric Bledsoe closed them again with a revenge three and the game was on, 2:00 am from time to time. Carmelo Anthony and Zion traded buckets, then Lillard led for a conventional three-point play. Then Williamson scored again. Lillard missed a three, leaving Portland 124-121.
With less than 24 seconds to go, the Blazers committed an intentional foul. Incredibly, Ingram missed two free throws with 7 seconds remaining on the clock. The Blazers had a chance to draw the final possession. Instead, the Pelicans fouled Lillard before he could shoot. Dame sank both, and now New Orleans was leading by 1 with 5 seconds left.
As the parade of the improbable continued. the pelicans smothered the entry pass. The ball fell out of bounds, giving Portland a chance to win with any shot.
As Lillard paused for two long seconds with 1.2 seconds remaining, Bledsoe hit him in the arm. Lillard calmly sank both free throws. New Orleans got a long pass to Williamson, but he missed the defended U-turn at the buzzer. After a draw for 42 minutes, the Blazers won in the most astounding way possible.
Stay tuned for our extended recap with analysis from Marlow Ferguson, Jr.!
The score of the box
Portland will face the Pelicans again Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. in the Pacific.