The Blazers fell victim to the dreaded second night of a back-to-back, and their tired legs couldn’t keep up with the Houston Rockets. The bright side was that Damain Lillard finally returned to the lineup, but it just wasn’t enough to beat the Harden-less Rockets. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon were unstoppable, combining for 67 points on the night. And in his return Lillard showed no signs of rust, scoring a team-high 29 points. Now it’s on to New Orleans to see if they can get back in the win column.
NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers over the years have experienced the pain of playoff loss, but it’s been a while since a series left a mark like this one to New Orleans.
“I think this one probably hurts a little more because we had such a great season, and we came in with really, really high expectations,’’ Damian Lillard said.
Unable to stop Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and unable to solve the defensive schemes of New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, the Blazers were swept Saturday after a 131-123 loss at Smoothie King Center.
“They were the better team for four games,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “They outplayed us, they outhustled us, they were more physical.’’
The 13-game winning streak, the Northwest Division title, the three seed and hosting a first-round playoff series were all erased with the ease of a Holiday layin and the force of a Davis follow dunk.
“I felt like coming into this playoffs, there was no way you were going to tell me we weren’t going to have a Game 5. You know?’’ Blazers big man Ed Davis said. “I mean, you can tell me, somebody was going to beat us in six or seven, but no way swept.’’
Davis surveyed the quiet locker room, with players cutting tape off their ankles for the final time.
“I mean, we are all shocked right now that we got swept by a team that we really felt like we were better than,’’ Davis said.
Perhaps most shocking was the inability of the Blazers to free Lillard from the layered Pelicans defense that used two and sometimes three players to trap him.
After having his best overall season in his six-year NBA career, Lillard had his worst playoff series, being held to 18.5 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and amassing 16 turnovers to his 19 assists.
“You have to give them credit for how well they executed offensively and they came in with a great defensive game plan, threw something at us we haven’t seen, and it worked out for them,’’ Lillard said. “We just didn’t play great. We didn’t have our best series.’’
The loss brings the Blazers to a crossroads: Continue full speed ahead with the NBA’s youngest roster to make the playoffs? Or break up a core that has lost 10 consecutive playoff games?
“Ultimately, you are defined by the postseason,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s a little early to say what direction we are going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is Neil (Olshey) is really good. We’ve been to the playoffs five straight years and he continues to change and build the roster. I’m pretty confident with that.’’
Lillard, who in January met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, said Saturday that he believes the franchise is doing all it can.
“I feel like to this point, we have,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve done what we can, but obviously there is room for improvement, especially when you come up short in the playoffs and get swept. Obviously there are a lot of things that can be done better on our part as an organization and as players.
“But for me, the same thing remains: I’ll go back to work and do my part,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody has a job to do and I’ve got to focus on what my job is.’’
Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a standout series with averages of 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, said he hopes the team is allowed to grow together.
“The core of the team is still really young and these are some of the lumps we will have to take in order to get better and continue to grow,’’ Aminu said.
The Blazers have four free agents – starting center Jusuf Nurkic; Davis, the NBA’s top reserve center; reserve Pat Connaughton; and reserve Shabazz Napier.
Davis, for one, says he wants to return.
“Like I’ve been saying since Day One: I hope I’m back here,’’ Davis said. “I hope July 1 at midnight we have something done and it’s over with. That’s what I’m hoping and banking on.’’
For now, the Blazers will lick their wounds and try to forget the dominance of Anthony Davis (33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.9 blocks), the two-way play of Holiday (27.8 points) and the masterful game-management of Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists) and look ahead to the future of Zach Collins and what should be the prime years of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s careers.
“I think we should be proud of what we did in the regular season,’’ Harkless said. “And then just learn from what happened in this postseason.’’
It was an ending that no one saw coming as the Trail Blazers got swept by the Pelicans in the first round.
Hear from Coach Stotts, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the Talkin' Ball podcast:
Join me and the rest of Scoop Nation try to make sense of what just happened in the playoffs on the final Scoop Postgame show of the season...
The Trail Blazers battled back from a double digit deficit but came up a few points short in their bid to avoid a 1st round sweep. The Pelicans duo of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis proved to be too much for the Blazers' defense combining for 88 points.
CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers in scoring with 38 points.
Scoop Postgame Show:
Scoop Postgame Show
That’ll do it from Smoothie King Center… Blazers drop Game 4, 131-123. The Pelicans are moving on… Let’s hear from YOU, #RipCity right now on The Scoop.Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Saturday, April 21, 2018
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