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NEW ORLEANS –If there is a snapshot that captures this first round series, it was taken in the third quarter of Game 3, and later framed for all to see around the NBA.
Anthony Davis soaring in, untouched, and grabbing a rebound with his left hand and flushing it for a dunk. Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic was literally floored, knocked to his hands and out of the way by Davis’ athletic and physical play.
In the aftermath of the play – which gave New Orleans a 79-60 lead – Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday stood at Nurkic’s feet and pointed in wide-eyed dismay at him. For a long time. Too long.
It was everything this series had become: a laugher, an embarrassment for the Trail Blazers. And it underscored why it had become so lopsided: the Pelicans beating Portland to another ball, a Pelicans’ star shining while the Blazers remained frustrated. And overall, another example of New Orleans being more aggressive, more physical and more … everything.
“Outplayed us in every way,’’ Lillard would say after the Game 3 blowout. “Every way, man.’’
But what about that show of disrespect by Holiday? The pointing. The posing. The mockery of it all?
Fittingly, the Blazers were apparently oblivious to Holiday’s actions, even though they had a front row seat for it, and even though it was splashed across the internet Thursday night.
“Huh?’’ Nurkic said when asked about it Friday. “I didn’t see it.’’
“Did he? I didn’t see it,’’ Lillard said. “When things going well for you, you do stuff like that. That’s I guess kind of something you do when you are feeling really confident, you are feeling yourself a little bit. It’s not like we’ve done anything about it .’’
CJ McCollum was shown a clip of the play. He shrugged his shoulders and chose not to comment.
And if the Blazers’ coach took offense to it, or thought anything of it, he didn’t say Friday as Terry Stotts was strangely made unavailable to the media even though he was 10 feet away from the camera and microphones, talking to Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations.
According to a team spokesman, there wasn’t enough time for Stotts to talk, because the team had to practice, which ignored the fact that the team was more than 15 minutes late in arriving.
In all, Game 3 magnified what in this series has been a strange display by a team that prides itself on culture, hard work and accountability.
At least Lillard on Friday showed some spunk and fight as Saturday’s Game 4 neared. When asked about making adjustments, he said he wanted to see the Blazers adjust their physicality.
“They were up into us a lot. A lot more aggressive than we were and we didn’t dish it back out,’’ Lillard said. “I think in the playoffs and a situation like this, when a team is coming for you like that, you have to maybe go out of your way to do it back. Even if that means some foul trouble or some altercations happen out there or whatever, but when a team comes from you like the way they did after last game, maybe we just need to make it a point of emphasis to go back and get back at them.’’
The Blazers have tried talking about adjustments to counter the Pelicans’ traps and gameplan against the backcourt, but their plans are both not working and not being executed fully.
“It’s easy to draw up and say this is what we want to do after you watch film,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you get out there and they are playing so disruptive … they’ve got their minds set on what they are going to do – it’s hard to execute it.’’
Defensively, the Blazers are in the spin cycle. Three different Pelicans have scored 30 or more points in the first three games – Anthony Davis (35 in Game 1), Holiday (33 in Game 2) and Nikola Mirotic (30 in Game 3) – all while Rajon Rondo has played the defense like a yo-yo.
So maybe there was nothing for Stotts to say, and no change in the game plan needed.
“Coaches can only do so much,’’ McCollum said. “They are not guarding Mirotic, they are not guarding Jrue holiday, or Rondo, or any of these guys. So it’s on us. We just need to play better.’’
If they don’t, Game 4 will bring a sweep and more finger pointing in their faces.
Down and almost out, the Trail Blazers seem just as bewildered as you and me about the way their first-round series with New Orleans has turned out.
Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And there are no easy answers. Portland, a team so reluctant to use double-teaming as a defensive tactic, is just about completely befuddled by the Pelicans' double teams. A roster that rattled off a long winning streak during the second half of the regular season, is now incapable of getting the job done. The coach, once being talked about as a longshot candidate for Coach of the Year, is seemingly not making necessary adjustments. The team's best player, being talked about as a possible first-team all-NBA selection, has been virtually shut down for three games.
What in the heck is going on here?
Well, I will address the problems as best I can and as directly as I can. They are many and sometimes contradictory:
- If players are being double-teamed to the point Lillard is, other players obviously have to emerge to hit open shots. That's simple math -- two people guarding one person means another person should be open. But to take advantage of that, the ball must move quickly to the open man and the open man must be able to make an open shot.
- Very often, the Trail Blazers invite the double teams with their high pick-and-roll. It makes it easy to simply blitz the screen and get the ball out of Lillard's or CJ McCollum's hands. Often, those players themselves call for that double team by calling for the high pick. New Orleans is obviously one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league, so... why not run something else? Why keep going back to something that isn't working?
- The safety valve against double-teams in Portland's attack is almost always the big man coming to the foul line for a pass. He can then turn and face the basket, knowing he's going to be facing a three-on-two situation. The problem for the Blazers has been that it's been Nurkic in that position and he isn't a threat to make a shot from where he receives the ball. Consequently, his defender -- usually Anthony Davis -- is still free to roam the basket area. Perhaps someone else could play that spot who can make an open 20-foot shot?
- And speaking of making open shots, the Trail Blazers have needed front-court shooting for two or three seasons now. You can tell me how well Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting all you want, but he isn't reliable or consistent and opponents still leave him open because they don't think he can convert. He's not a floor stretcher. The Blazers need long-distance shooting that will help open the court for Lillard and McCollum. This is not a new problem.
- On the defensive end, the Trail Blazers continue to attempt to use Aminu to defend bigger players and it hasn't gone well. Against the Pelicans, it creates a terrible matchup for Jusuf Nurkic, who then must chase Nikola Mirotic around on the perimeter. While Aminu may do a marginally better job on Davis than Nurkic, the latter cannot come close to defending Mirotic, so it forces Nurkic to the bench in favor of a better defender. This is a defensive tactic by Portland that forces its third-best player, Nurkic, to the bench. And oh well, it may not matter because the Blazers aren't making good use of him on offense, anyway. If they don't get him out of that high pick-and-roll into one closer to the basket, he's not nearly as effective. He needs to catch close enough to the rim that he doesn't need to put the ball on the floor.
- I believe there's also been a Portland effort problem in this series. For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers have been outhustled. This happened at times during the regular season but I don't understand it. Especially in the postseason.
- The ball has to consistently move around the floor more often. When the Blazers are playing well, they move the ball and move bodies. Too often this season, things generate into the guards going one-on-one and in the playoffs, that's a hard way to win. When I talk to people around the NBA about this team, that's a criticism I hear often -- the guards are too dominant. But considering the shot-making ability of the forwards, can you blame them?
- This thing has gone way off the tracks in the playoffs and I've outlined several things that are responsible. But the other thing that's gone unmentioned is that the Pels just might be this much better than the Trail Blazers.
- What can be done at this point to change things for the better? The easy answer is nothing. But I'd at least like to see more effort in Game 4.
Check out the most recent Talkin' Ball podcast as the guys try to figure out what has happened to the Trail Blazers...
It was a turnover prone night for the Trail Blazers who gave it away 24 times and now find themselves in an 0-3 hole vs. New Orleans. McCollum (22), Aminu (21), Lillard (20) led the way for Portland
Box Score: New Orleans 119, Portland 102
Game 3 of the Blazers vs. Pelicans first round playoffs game is exclusively on NBC Sports Northwest.
Though it may appear on TV listings, Game 3 will be blacked out on NBA TV in Oregon and Washington because it will air on NBC Sports Northwest.
If you don’t get NBC Sports Northwest, please use this guide to see which TV providers carry NBC Sports Northwest in your zip code.
NBCS Northwest is available on the following providers:
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NEW ORLEANS -- Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he is considering lineup changes as his team heads into Thursday’s Game 3 in New Orleans in an 0-2 hole.
One of the lineup changes might be forced upon him: Evan Turner, who started at small forward the past 11 games, is questionable with a bruised big toe suffered in Game 2.
“Evan is always positive and he said he will be ready to go,’’ Stotts said Wednesday in New Orleans. “We will see how it goes tomorrow. He was in no position to play last night (after suffering the injury).’’
Maurice Harkless is a likely candidate to move into the starting small forward position after making his series debut in Game 2. In his first game since he had surgery March 28 to clean out his left knee, Harkless played 27 minutes, hitting all five of his shots and finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and a block. Stotts said the 27 minutes exceeded what he and the health-and-performance team had outlined.
Damian Lillard isn’t the only one not getting to the free throw line – the Blazers as a team have been kept off the line.
Lillard, who finished seventh in the NBA in free throw attempts (538), which included a 7.4 average per game, has attempted only four free throws in two games. And the Blazers, who averaged nearly 21 free throws a game in the series has attempted only 22 total in the first two games.
“That’s a touchy one,’’ Stotts said when asked about the dip in free throws. “They haven’t been calling a lot of fouls.’’
With Lillard, he said there isn’t an adjustment to be made to get him to the line more.
“It’s a little frustrating at times because the ball is in his hands and he is getting pressured and getting to the basket,’’ Stotts said. “I don’t know that you can do anything else to get more calls.’’
Stotts said if there is one good thing about the Blazers standing in this series it’s that they are back in a familiar spot: the underdog.
“We are good in an underdog role,’’ Stotts said. “This team has been resilient, this team has been written off, and it has bounced back.’’
AREA OF CONCERN
When the Blazers met Wednesday in New Orleans for a film session, one area was a point of contention: hustle.
Several times throughout the series, and in particular at the end of Game 2, the Blazers were beaten to loose balls or to rebounds. Stotts says he noticed it and was concerned enough to address it in front of the team.
“It was brought up to the team,’’ Stotts said. “Those are possessions that determine winning and losing.’’
Lillard noted the Pelicans’ will after Game 2.
“I think these first two games came down to a lot of 50-50 balls,’’ Lillard said. “They were just more grimy than we were, they played a more physical game. They gutted it out more than we did in both games.’’
BLAZERS ON HOLIDAY
An emerging storyline in the series has been the play of Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday. Coming into the series, the talk was of his defense, but the guard has averaged 27 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field.
Stotts on Wednesday was asked who has guarded Holiday the best.
“I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that,’’ Stotts said. “Because I don’t think we have guarded him very well.’’
ROOKIE BRIGHT SPOT
Blazers rookie Zach Collins has been a bight spot in the first two games, in particular his Game 2, when he had 12 points and five rebounds.
For the series, Collins is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes a game.
“I’ve been very pleased with Zach,’’ Stotts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. He’s been aggressive in his post-up mismatches and defensively his length has been helpful around the rim.’’
Stotts said three times late in Game 2 Collins was switched on Holiday and the Pelicans’ guard scored only once.
“There’s a lot to like,’’ Stotts said. “And it’s a great experience for him, but I’m not playing him to get experience, I’m playing him because he’s been able to put us in position to win.’’
NEW ORLEANS – By the time Damian Lillard had touched down in New Orleans on Wednesday, there had been a day of swirling criticism and questions surrounding his playoff play.
The Trail Blazers’ star paid no mind.
“I’m not concerned with anything being said,’’ Lillard said. “I just gotta find a way to get it done.’’
Perhaps never in Lillard’s six-years in Portland have the Trail Blazers faced a more precarious time. They have not only lost home court advantage in this best-of-seven series, they are in a 0-2 deficit heading to New Orleans.
Most unsettling for the Blazers is they are in this predicament largely because Lillard, the man who always delivers, quite simply has not in the first two games.
Not since the 2015 playoffs against Memphis has the NBA world seen Lillard so out of sorts.
The Trail Blazers’ star has been taken out of the first round series against the Pelicans as a pack of guards -- Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, chief among them – have limited his space to operate with traps and physical play.
In the first two games, both Blazers’ losses on their home court, Lillard is averaging 17.5 points – nearly 10 points below his season average – while shooting 31.7 percent from the field (13-for-41) and 31.3 percent from three-point range 5-for-16). In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, he had seven turnovers.
“I’ve just got to be better,’’ Lillard said after the Game 2 loss. “I think it’s as simple as that.’’
This isn’t the first time Lillard has been stymied at the start of a playoff series. In 2015, against Memphis, Mike Conley and Tony Allen put the clamps on Lillard in the first two games, holding him to a 16.0 scoring average on 27 percent shooting (10-of-37) while limiting him to a total of four assists.
Lillard did rebound over the next three games against Memphis, albeit amid a 4-games-to-1 series loss, averaging 25.3 points while shooting 49.1 percent from the field.
Lillard on Wednesday declined to draw parallels to his 2015 playoffs and his situation against the swarming Pelicans, saying he is a different player, on a different team.
What’s more, Lillard noted, is the Pelicans are not only sending two players at him, sometimes it is three.
It has presented him with a dilemma: make the right play and pass to open teammates? Or try to absorb the scoring load the team so relies on by shaking the defenders and taking a tough shot?
“I think the right thing to do is trust and make the right play, find the next guy,’’ Lillard said after Game 2. “But it’s finding that balance of being aggressive and making those right plays.’’
Stotts said he installed some new wrinkles to the offense before Game 2 that helped the offense, and he added that as coach, his primary focus is getting the team – not just Lillard – going.
One of Lillard’s primary weapons – getting to the free throw line – has been disarmed against the Pelicans. In two games, Lillard has attempted a total of four free throws. In the regular season, he averaged 7.4 attempts a game, and his 538 free throw attempts ranked seventh in the NBA.
“There’s contact,’’ Lillard said Wednesday. “I’m just not getting the calls right now. But I’m surrounded most of the time, so I get it out to the open guy. There just comes a time where I have to be aggressive anyway, and that means I have to take tough shots against a scheme obviously set up to make me do that.’’
Game 3 is Thursday in New Orleans (6 p.m., NBC Sports Northwest), and after the Game 2 loss, Evan Turner said the Stotts urged the team to take on the greatest cliché in sports: One game at a time.
“That’s legit; exact words: Take it one game at a time,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is to think about one game at a time and not worry about the big picture. Clearly, it’s the first to four wins.’’
The Blazers will try to become the fifth team to lose their first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, joining the 2017 Celtics, who beat the Bulls in six, the 2005 Mavericks who beat the Rockets in seven, the 1994 Rockets who beat the Suns in seven and the 1969 Lakers, who beat the Warriors in six.
I had no idea...
... that the New Orleans Pelicans' defense could so thoroughly befuddle the Trail Blazer offense.
... that the combo of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo would be the two most effective guards on the floor.
... that the Trail Blazers would lose two home games in the entire series, let alone the FIRST two games.
... that if there is a sweep it would more likely be the Pelicans with the broom rather than the Trail Blazers.
... that Damian Lillard would have so much trouble making shots. Not only from three-point range but from anywhere.
... that the Trail Blazer season has such a big chance to turn into a downer.
... that the No. 3 seed in the West and the division championship would look so much like cheap consolation prizes.
Sorry, I did not see this coming. Not at all. I still can't believe what I'm watching. I feel bad for the players, the coaches, the front office, all the kind people working behind the scenes for this organization and, most of all, the fans.
It does not appear that this is going to end well.