• Jake Layman almost completely ignored the soaring finger roll that began the most scintillating stretch of his NBA career.

    Coming off the bench for the first time in five games with Moe Harkless healthy, Layman spent the entirety of the first quarter on the bench Friday night, watching the Blazers go back and forth with the team that swept them out of the playoffs last spring. His first two shots, three-point attempts that came in the first 90 seconds of the second quarter, were off the mark. Moments later, Layman showed off the length and leaping ability that make him one of Portland’s most tantalizing young players – and was almost avoided altogether, offset by his nagging penchant for a lack of aggression.

    See where Layman is on the floor when he turns toward the rim? This dribble hand-off action is a staple of the Blazers’ offense, normally used to promote player movement and swing the ball quickly from side to side. But with the Pelicans’ Frank Jackson trailing several feet behind the play, a red sea of paint opens for Layman the moment he receives the ball from Zach Collins. A player always in attack mode would have noticed immediately. Layman, on the other hand, with his eyes looking at the weak side, needed a full dribble before realizing his mistake and atoning for it with highlight-reel hops in the blink of an eye.

    Fortunately for the Blazers, he abandoned his passive natural instincts from that point forward, blowing a competitive game wide open in the process.

    Layman scored 20 points, without missing a shot, during a six-minute, 27-second stretch of the second quarter. He drained four high-arcing threes and threw down a pair of thunderous dunks, playing with the supreme confidence that can sometimes so easily bring his rare athletic gifts to bear. The hot hand accounted for Layman’s breakout more than anything else, obviously, and can’t be counted on going forward. But for a player who was so readily overlooked while starting the first 19 games of the season, it was still encouraging to watch Layman, feeding off the crowd, both hunt heat-check three-point opportunities and celebrate with passion by the time his frantic sequence was finished.

    Layman, whose only points came during that ridiculous barrage, was the catalyst behind the Blazers extending their lead, but he didn’t beat the Pelicans all by himself. Al-Farouq Aminu was instrumental to Portland’s effort on both ends, serving as Anthony Davis‘ primary defender and connecting on 3-of-6 from beyond the arc – with each make coming off high ball-screen action, after New Orleans committed two defenders to Damian Lillard.

    Blazers fans will never forget that embarrassing first-round sweep, but what’s been lost in the haze of memory since and went under-noticed at the time is that Aminu shot 43.3 percent from beyond the arc against the Pelicans. He made the same shots on Friday that New Orleans was begging him to take in April. The difference this time is that Portland, rather than forcing the issue or settling for open jumpers from streaky shooters, pinged the ball all over the floor en route to 30 total assists. Layman’s explosion and the Blazers’ 18 offensive rebounds, a season-high, certainly contributed to their impressive offensive output, too.

    Harkless’ play deserves more than a passing mention. He scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in 21 minutes, never showing any rust that could have built up since his previous appearance on January 7, and even exhibiting the activity and athleticism that makes him one of Portland’s most versatile players. Three of his four baskets were dunks, and he also blocked a dunk attempt by Julius Randle. Does this look like a guy suffering from persistent knee pain that’s caused him to miss the last five games?

    It’s still too early to expect a positive impact from Layman on a nightly basis, and there’s no telling how Harkless’ knee will hold up over the season’s second half. Despite Layman’s hot hand and Harkless’ career-best percentage last season, neither is a knockdown three-point shooter, either. But if both can consistently replicate just some aspects of their play against New Orleans going forward, Terry Stotts will suddenly possess more legitimate options on the wing than he’s ever had before.

    Davis scored 27 points and shot over 50 percent from the field, but was hardly the dominant force that’s caused the Blazers so many problems in the recent past. One reason for his relatively pedestrian showing was Portland consistently double-teaming him in the post, whether he was being checked by Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, or a perimeter player after a switch. The Blazers brought an extra defender Davis’ direction from the top, from the baseline, and from the opposite wing, ostensibly doubling off the Pelicans’ least-threatening player in the context of live action.

    Portland, for the most part, did well rotating behind the double-team, too. On this sequence in the second quarter, two additional defenders converge on Davis on the left block, leaving Layman and Lillard to deal with four offensive players all by their lonesome. But Layman and Lillard are in perfect help position on the double, and able to quickly close-out on potential shooters as the ball moves, leaving enough time for McCollum to get all the way to the weak corner for a potential contest.

    Help defense doesn’t get much better than that. To be fair, it’s not like the Blazers were at their absolute best defensively on Friday. New Orleans put up an offensive rating of 110.9 despite going just 8-of-25 from three. The road team briefly made it a game in the fourth quarter, too, whittling Portland’s 21-point lead to nine with 3:05 to play before Lillard hit his second and final triple.

    But the Pelicans, it bears reminding, have the third-best offensive rating in the league, behind the dynasty Golden State Warriors and James Harden‘s Houston Rockets. They actually underperformed offensively by the numbers, and didn’t do enough on the other end to make the Blazers uncomfortable offensively – a reality that was driven home by Layman’s second-quarter scoring binge, but was apparent from the opening tip of Friday’s game.

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