The Portland Trail Blazers worked all year to earn home-court advantage to start the 2018 NBA playoffs. Terry Stotts and company revamped their defense and bolstered their rotation around star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum en route to 49 wins and the West’s No. 3 seed, ensuring they’d start the postseason at Moda Center and get one extra game in the friendly confines against whichever Western Conference opponent traveled up to the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, it was Anthony Davis who paid them a visit on Saturday night. And now they don’t have home-court anymore.
The five-time All-Star spent the last two months of the season carrying the Pelicans to their first playoff berth in three years, and he continued his dominant play to kick off the postseason, scoring a game-high 35 points to lead New Orleans to a 97-95 win on Saturday, and a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven opening-round series against the higher-seeded Blazers.
Davis made 14 of his 26 field goal attempts, and pulled down 14 rebounds, blocked four shots and snagged two steals in 41 minutes of floor time, dominating the Blazers’ frontcourt of Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner with a devastating array of offensive firepower — in transition and in the half-court, facing up and rolling to the rim off a screen, attacking early and redeeming possessions late in the clock — on his way to the first playoff win of his career, and New Orleans’ first postseason victory since 2011, when they were still called the Hornets.
As impressive as Davis and the Pelicans were for the bulk of the contest, leading by as many as 19 points in the third quarter after totally shutting down the Blazers’ offense to the tune of only 36 points on 15-for-47 shooting in the first half, Portland gave themselves a chance late by roaring back in the final five minutes. After Evan Turner rebounded his own missed triple, Lillard made the extra pass for a right corner 3-pointer by McCollum that capped a 17-5 run to draw the Blazers within one at 93-92 with 59.8 seconds to go in regulation.
After a scramble drill on both ends of the floor — Turner swiping the ball away from driving Pelicans guard Ian Clark on the ensuing possession to get the Blazers out in transition, only for New Orleans stopper Jrue Holiday to totally blanket McCollum in the open floor and steal the ball right back — both teams’ top guns had a chance to deliver a big blow. Both came up short, though.
Davis missed a potential dagger 3-pointer with 28 seconds to go, and on the next trip, Lillard drove around Holiday into the paint but pulled up a beat early — perhaps trying to back into Holiday and draw a foul to get himself to the free throw line on a night where he was struggling with his shot, perhaps not wanting to go all the way to the rim to try a shot for fear of testing Davis, who’d already packed him on one drive earlier in the quarter — and short-armed a floater that kept the Pelicans’ lead at 93-92 with 12 seconds to go.
After a pair of AD freebies and a Blazers timeout, Portland still had a chance to tie if Stotts could draw up a play that would pop one of his shooters free for a clean look beyond the arc. But the Pelicans were ready for Portland’s actions on two consecutive inbounds plays, taking away the long-range options that could’ve tied the game, forcing the Blazers to just go for a quick two, and then stifling those, as well.
First, Holiday broke from the perimeter into the paint to deflect a pass away from little-used Blazers center Meyers Leonard. Then, after the ball was ruled out off of Holiday’s hand and the Blazers got another crack at a game-tying play, Holiday again recovered into the paint to snuff a layup by Pat Connaughton that effectively ended Portland’s hopes of completing the comeback:
The final-minute heroics — the open-court stop on McCollum, the deflection on Leonard, the block on Connaughton — served as a tremendous reintroduction to Holiday for those who might not have been paying much attention to the oft-injured former Philadelphia 76ers All-Star.
“It’s funny, because we always put a clip on [the video edit that the Pelicans’ coaches show their players] that says ‘game-winning plays,’ and today, it actually was Jrue blocking [Connaughton’s] shot in the Portland game,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. “Same guy, almost the exact same area and he came up with another block.”
“It’s the playoffs,” Holiday said after the game. “A lot of excitement and a lot of energy especially in the building. Obviously, that was a really big stop, and at that moment, it felt good to get a stop. It felt good to know that all the hard work we put in this game, we got the win, so we did a really good job at that.”
Holiday has worked to earn the nine-figure contract he received this summer by turning in arguably the best season of his career and, since the unfortunate season-ending injury to All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, working as the Pelicans’ clear second-best player — a quality lead guard with the shooting, skill and size to play off the ball, who also happens to be an All-Defensive Team-caliber disruptor capable of guarding the other team’s best player at every perimeter position on any given night.
“I just think, like I’ve said, with Kawhi Leonard not dressed and playing, I don’t know if there’s a better two-way player in the game,” Gentry said of Holiday.
He merited that praise on Saturday, proving equal to the task of both dampening Lillard — 18 points on just 6-for-23 shooting in 42 minutes — and supporting Davis, finishing with 21 points on 10-for-20 shooting to go with seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 39 minutes in the home-court-wresting win.
The Pelicans’ two stars had help. Nikola Mirotic, the floor-stretching power forward imported from the Chicago Bulls at the start of February as New Orleans looked to bounce back from Boogie’s Achilles tear, chipped in 16 points with 11 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo further bolstered his postseason bona fides, keeping the Pelicans running on time and on target by dishing out 17 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, and turning the ball over only twice in 39 minutes of work.
Swingman E’Twaun Moore did yeoman’s work in harassing McCollum (19 points on 18 shots in 38 minutes) all over the court. Former Warriors reserve Ian Clark pitched in 10 points off the bench, including a big 3-pointer with 2:29 to go to help stem the Blazers’ run.
There were silver linings for Portland. Despite opening the playoffs with one of their most abysmal halves of the season, despite shooting just 37.8 percent from the field as a team, and despite watching their two leading scorers combine to shoot just 13-for-41 from the field, the Blazers had chances to win it in the final minutes. Stotts got good minutes from the reserve frontcourt of Ed Davis (six points, 13 rebounds) and rookie Zach Collins (eight points, three assists, two rebounds, two steals), and the Blazers did get the offensive cranked up after halftime, scoring 59 points with Lillard (15 points, 3-for-5 from deep) and McCollum (19 points, 4-for-7) finding the range on their jumpers late.
But those silver linings come wrapped around a dark cloud: the Blazers just gave away the advantage they’d fought so hard to secure, and now they’ve got to come back on Tuesday with better answers for guarding Davis, for unleashing their playmakers in a pick-and-roll defended by elite stoppers Davis and Holiday, and for slowing a Pelicans team that’s not going to be satisfied with its first taste of postseason success.
“It means a lot to get that monkey off your back, to get that first win,” said Davis, who made the first playoff appearance of his career back in 2015, but was swept out of the first round by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. “But now, that’s over with. We want to come in Tuesday and get another one.”
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