April 20, 2018, 1:12 am
The end is essentially inevitable now. After three games that told slightly different versions of the same story, it’s hard to believe anyone – let alone a majority of basketball followers – thought it could possibly come later for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday night, taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the teams’ first-round series with an utterly dominant two-way performance from the opening tip. Nikola Mirotic scored a team-high 30 points on 12-of-15 from the field and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, keeping his red-hot right hand aflame while flashing a refined, versatile post game and underrated athleticism. Anthony Davis was the best player on the floor, though, dominating Portland on both ends en route to 30 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks on 11-of-18 shooting – numbers that somehow understate his unique influence across 94 feet. Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo combined for 32 points, 18 assists and five steals, thoroughly out-dueling their more-heralded backcourt counterparts for a third consecutive game.
The Blazers’ play can be summed up in one depressingly head-scratching sequence just after halftime. Following a quick 5-0 run by Portland, which trailed 64-45 at intermission, and subsequent timeout by Alvin Gentry, Damian Lillard randomly lost his handle while preparing to round a screen on the right wing, leading to an uncontested dunk by Holiday. Lillard turned the ball over again less than a minute later, when he tried to thread a lazy bounce pass between the swarming arms and active hands of Holiday and Davis. Jusuf Nurkic had the ball ripped from his paws by Mirotic on Portland’s next possession, and Lillard dribbled off his foot out of bounds while probing a coming double-team the next time his team had the ball. Al-Farouq Aminu, easily the Blazers’ best player on Thursday with 21 points (8-15 FGs), eight rebounds and two steals, got too ambitious off the bounce on the ensuing trip that direction, giving Davis another steal – and the Blazers their fifth turnover in two-and-a half minutes.
So much for a second-half comeback.
Lillard went 5-of-14 from the field for 20 points, his worst shooting night of the postseason. He had just two assists despite New Orleans continuing to force the ball out of his hands, and committed eight turnovers all by his lonesome. Worse, Lillard, big-game hero since his rookie year, was timid and hesitant with his team’s back against the wall.
“He’s a competitor and he wants to play better,” Terry Stotts said, “but you have to compliment New Orleans’ defense. They have a gameplan, and they’ve really stuck to it and executed it well so far.”
The Pelicans scored 35 points off of Portland’s 24 total turnovers. The Blazers were outscored 18-0 in fast break points and 30-12 in the paint during the first half, an imminently losing combination of ineptitude in a vacuum. Portland’s bench, surprisingly effective in the first two games of this series, didn’t score a single point until there were 44 seconds left on the third-quarter clock. The Pelicans shot 80.6 percent from the restricted area, comfortably higher than LeBron James‘ league-leading regular-season mark. Before Gentry pulled his starters with 7:05 remaining, New Orleans had an offensive rating of 127.6 and a defensive rating of 91.4, good for a net of +36.2 points per 100 possession.
The worst part about all of this for Portland? It wasn’t even necessarily surprising given what transpired at Moda Center earlier in this series, back in the world when its hosts were considered favorites.
The Blazers had no defensive answer for Davis again, no matter where he was on the floor or who was guarding him. Aminu got the assignment early, a departure from Games 1 and 2, but that left Nurkic chasing Mirotic, who scored 14 points in the first quarter. When Stotts shifted those assignments back after halftime, allowing Moe Harkless and Aminu to switch Holiday-Davis pick-and-rolls, the Pelicans found answers – one of which was as easy as it was jaw-dropping.
— NBA (@NBA) April 20, 2018
McCollum was better in Game 3; he finished with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. But he hardly affected the game elsewhere like Rondo, let alone Holiday, and the same can be said for Lillard. When Portland’s backcourt is so objectively outplayed, there’s just no way for this team to win a playoff series – especially when the opponent is led by a player like Davis, wreaking relentless havoc in an attack that’s taking his talents to new, unforeseen heights.
Even if there’s more than one game left in Portland’s season, anyone being objective knows it will be over soon. The Pelicans, as currently constructed, with Holiday playing at his ferocious peak and executing on both sides of the ball with consistent precision, are a really, really bad matchup for the Blazers.
“They whooped our ass,” McCollum told The Oregonian.
And based on everything we’ve seen in the first three games of this series, rightfully so.