April 18, 2018, 2:09 pm
The Portland Trail Blazers might have finally found a lineup that has a chance to be successful against the New Orleans Pelicans. Unfortunately for Terry Stotts and company, it might be too late for that development to matter.
The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Blazers 111-102 on Tuesday night, taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the teams’ first-round playoff series before it shifts to Smoothie King Center. Jrue Holiday was the best player on the floor, scoring 33 points and dishing nine assists while taking over in crunch time with the the type of two-way dominance normally reserved for his MVP-candidate teammate. That’s not to suggest Anthony Davis let the Pelicans down, either. He had 22 points, 18 rebounds, two steals and two blocks, frustrating the Blazers on both sides of the ball with his unique combination of length, skill and athleticism.
Portland’s stars, meanwhile, were missing in action again – at least by comparison. C.J. McCollum, who had 22 points on 9-of-21 shooting, certainly had his moments offensively throughout Game 2, but failed to find the consistency needed to offset the continued struggles of his backcourt partner. Damian Lillard was badly outplayed by Holiday again, and made several defensive miscues late – by way of inattentiveness, fatigue or both – that cost his team the chance to steal a victory. He finished with 17 and four assists on 7-of-18 from the field, and committed a whopping seven turnovers.
New Orleans, just like in Game 1, seemed on its way to another convincing victory until Portland made a run in the fourth quarter. Tuesday’s was spearheaded by the return of Moe Harkless, who not only scored 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting in a team-high 27 minutes off the bench, but also allowed Stotts to abandon his traditional rotation late in favor of a lineup that threw stylistic curveballs on both ends of the floor.
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Zach Collins played the last six minutes and 15 seconds of Game 2, switching everything on defense and stationing five players beyond the arc offensively to storm back from a depressing third quarter in which the Blazers were outscored 33-19. Portland even took a brief two-point lead on a triple by Harkless with 3:20 left on the game clock, one stolen right back seconds later on a high-arcing triple by Nikola Mirotic to put the Pelicans up 102-100. The Blazers never got any closer.
Holiday had 12 points in the fourth quarter, feasting as an individual scorer in ball-screen action, but even that gaudy point total doesn’t do his crunch-time impact justice. He forced the Blazers into multiple misses down the stretch with lock-down on-ball defense, and just as importantly, made every hustle play that presented itself, including tracking down a loose ball off a missed three by Mirotic with two minutes left – and calmly draining a pull-up three to put New Orleans up 105-100.
Just as they did all game long, Holiday’s teammates followed his lead from there. E’Twaun Moore missed his second straight free throw less than a minute later, providing Portland with a glimmer of hope. But it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, with Moore grabbing his own miss and somehow erring on an easy layup, only for another 50-50 ball to be tracked down by the Pelicans. Rajon Rondo, postseason switch flipped, iced the game on this triple with 39 seconds left, extending New Orleans’ lead to 108-100.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 18, 2018
Since 1984, 20 teams have lost the first two games of a seven-game series on their home floor, and only three of them have come back to win. That’s not an encouraging statistic for the Blazers, of course, but that hardly means they’re backing down from the challenge.
“We’re down 0-2 heading into New Orleans,” McCollum said after the game. “We’ve got to have the same mindset they had. Go into their home court and compete, make second-chance opportunities for ourselves, get loose balls.”
After a team effort good enough to win, with awesome performances from Harkless, Aminu (14 points, 15 rebounds and four 3-pointers) and Collins (12 points, five rebounds), Lillard placed the onus more squarely on himself.
“I give a lot of credit to them for executing their game plan, seeing two and three guys and making the game difficult,” he said. “But the opportunities that I do get, I’ve just got to be better. I think it’s as simple as that.”
The return of Harkless and the strategic gambits his presence provides will make Lillard’s life easier. Regression to the mean will help, too. But if it doesn’t come soon, Portland’s highly-anticipated postseason run will be over – and for all intents and purposes, it probably is anyway.