It was a vision of what could have been: A glaring sight during Friday’s home contest against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Smack dab in the middle of Portland’s bench sat Zach Collins, Mario Hezonja, Jusuf Nurkic, and Damian Lillard – all in suits, not suited up.
Just out of view, sat Rodney Hood, who was watching from the second row of the bench wearing a boot on his left foot.
Thinking about what this season could’ve been with a healthy Nurkic, Collins and Hood is something many have thought about over the past few weeks, but now, adding Lillard to the injured list, and his status is still relatively unknown, the Blazers looked to CJ McCollum Friday night.
McCollum had no problem taking over the starting point guard duties. He can get his teammates involved when asked to do so, and he has every bit of confidence in running the team.
It was just that the Pelicans were knocking down threes from all over the perimeter and in transition.
New Orleans defeated Portland 128-115, but that wasn’t without a fight from McCollum and the Blazers.
Stepping into his new role for the foreseeable future, McCollum was particularly active in finding the open man, especially early on. He had seven assists in the first quarter.
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was pleased with how the 28-year-old shooting guard managed the game.
“I thought CJ had a very good game. In the offense he picked his moments to try and score, obviously double-digit assists, I thought he played the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Coach Stotts said postgame.
With confidence in his voice, McCollum echoed a similar message in the locker room, but he would like to take better care of the ball from here on out.
McCollum led all scores with 27 points on 10-of-22 shooting, to go along with tying his career high in assists with 10.
Portland as a team shot 45.7 percent for the game.
That’s not the problem and McCollum knows it.
“I did a decent job. I had like five turnovers –too many turnovers, but outside of that, I thought offensively wasn’t the problem. Defensively was the bigger problem. We figure out ways to score, we always have, we’ve just got to tighten up at the other end.”
I think we competed, but I think just some lapses defensively. We fouled a lot in the first half. I think they shot like 28, 29 free throws in the first half which is too many easy points, so we’ve got to tighten that up but overall, I thought we competed. Just didn’t play well enough defensively to win. -- Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum
New Orleans shot an efficient 53.6 percent from the field, including an impressive 52.9 percent from behind the arc.
With Lillard expecting to miss three to five games with a right groin strain, it’s not just putting a strain on McCollum, even though his teammates are recognizing that it is McCollum who will have to overcome the most.
As the season has progressed, so has Lillard and Hassan Whiteside’s pick and roll action.
McCollum had a good connection with the Blazers starting center early on Friday night, but those two will need to continue to develop a good two-man game with Lillard out.
Whiteside finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, good for his 42nd double-double of the season.
The Blazers 7-footer mentioned after the loss that a lot of the play calling now falls on McCollum, even though coach Stotts said pregame that he would help in facilitating some of the plays more with Lillard out.
“I know it’s going to be tougher for everybody,” Whiteside said when talking about not having Lillard for the next handful of games. “It’s going to be tougher for me, it’s going to be tougher for CJ because we’ve been playing a lot through [Lillard] and he makes a lot of decisions out there, but like I said, we’ve got to come out here and keep competing. We’ve got the first one under our belt, let’s move on to Detroit and get a win there. That’s a must win.”
Keep competing along with running opponents off the three-point line and getting back in transition to limit easy fast break buckets -- those are just a few of the Blazers’ action items while their five-time All-Star is sidelined.
And with that, the 19-39 Detroit Pistons might be just what the doctor ordered for Portland.