April 21, 2018, 8:48 pm
At least they put up a fight. The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans 131-123 on Saturday, putting an official and depressing end to their season by becoming the first three seed since 2001 to get swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Anthony Davis played perhaps the best game of his career, finishing with a postseason franchise-record 47 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks on 15-of-24 shooting. Jrue Holiday, incredibly, might have been better, pouring in a personal playoff-best of 41 points on 15-of-23 shooting to go along with eight assists. Those eye-popping numbers don’t tell the real story of their impact in Game 4, either. The film certainly does.
With Portland, courtesy of some key two-way adjustments, staging a sustained fourth-quarter rally in a last-ditch effort to extend its season, New Orleans’ best players consistently came up big when their team needed them most. On eight separate occasions, the Blazers’ chance to take the lead on their next trip down the floor was thwarted by scores from Holiday or Davis. They did it however they wanted, embarrassing Portland defenders with the frightening combination of ease and intensity they displayed throughout this series.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 21, 2018
— NBA (@NBA) April 21, 2018
It’s not like Holiday and Davis only dominated late, either. They combined for 32 of their team’s 43 points in the third quarter, a new franchise best for the postseason, and spearheaded an offense that shot a remarkable 66 percent on two-pointers and doled out 28 assists. The Pelicans’ offensive rating in Game 4 was 130.5, an easy high in a series that made the Blazers’ surprisingly strong defensive performance during the regular season moot – and calls into major question the makeup of Neil Olshey’s roster going forward.
Jusuf Nurkic, a restricted free agent this summer who had 18 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, helped Portland get back into the game late by beasting Nikola Mirotic in the post. C.J. McCollum erupted for 38 points on 15-of-22 shooting, and Al-Farouq Aminu, arguably his team’s best player in Game 4, had 27 points while connect on 5-of-11 from beyond the arc. Damian Lillard was better, too, scoring 19 points on 16 shots, dishing six assists and committing a single turnover. The Blazers shot 52.6 percent from the field, 10-of-27 from three and 13-of-16 from the line. They managed 20 assists against six turnovers, a major departure from the previous three games, and were far better prepared to deal with double-teams on the perimeter.
None of it mattered. Holiday and Davis were relentless, and the hole Portland dug itself during the first 36 minutes of Saturday’s contest proved just a bit too deep to save the season.
“There’s no way you could have told me before the series that there wouldn’t be a Game 5,” Ed Davis told NBC Sports Northwest in the post-game locker room. “We’re shocked.”
Just as shocking, though, were means of the Blazers’ almost-comeback, which aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Terry Stotts’ job security. The Pelicans put Mirotic on Nurkic from the opening tip of Game 4, just like they did the previous two games. But it was only late that Portland began exploiting that mismatch with planned post-ups, an especially vexing non-development given New Orleans’ success neutralizing Lillard in ball-screen action. Stotts also toggled the defensive matchups with the season on the line, moving Aminu to Holiday and stashing Evan Turner on Mirotic. Holiday had some success against Aminu, but hardly to the calm, casual extent he did while being checked by Turner, Lillard, McCollum, Pat Connaughton or even Moe Harkless, the latter of whom missed the 2017-18 finale with left knee soreness stemming from arthroscopic surgery late last month.
Portland’s personnel is limited in many ways, a reality forcefully manifested in the Pelicans’ two-way game-planning and, more troublingly, their new frontcourt pairing of Mirotic and Davis. An overwhelming majority of league analysts picked the Blazers to advance past the first round, but most did so acknowledging the possibility that the Pelicans could pose them an unfixable set of problems. Fine. But the simple strategic tweaks that turned Game 4, playing through Nurkic and letting Aminu guard Holiday, were available all series long, yet only put into place when Portland’s collecgive back was against the wall. Why?
Stotts is a very good coach, but he’s culpable here. So is everybody else.
This offseason is the Blazers’ most important since 2015, when the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez ushered in a new era of Rose City basketball. The inevitable rebuild accompanied by those losses never came; Lillard, McCollum and Stotts made sure of it. Might similarly drastic changes be on the horizon?
Only time will tell. After a well-earned sweep at hand of a lower-seeded team, though, it’s never been more obvious the status quo just isn’t good enough.