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Failure down the stretch costs Pelicans a chance at victory over Trail Blazers

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It was Dame Time early, Pelicans Lame Time late

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 126-124 Wednesday night in the Smoothie King Center. In a game that was close throughout, it seemed like the Pelicans might pull off their second win in as many nights, but it wasn’t meant to be as the team couldn’t come up with a defensive stop nor a clutch basket on the game’s final two possessions.

Damian Lillard, Portland’s All-Star point guard, seemingly came into this game on a mission and did he ever exercise the demons of Pelicans’ past. After historically struggling against the Jrue Holiday version of the Pelicans, Lillard reintroduced himself to fans in New Orleans by dropping 43 points and dishing 16 assists.

Right from the beginning, Lillard dominated, leading all scorers in the first quarter with 15 points on 5 of 9 shooting including 3 of 5 from behind the three-point line. The Portland star wasn't just finding his own shot early, adding five assists in the opening frame as well. Whether it was off pick and rolls, spot-up jumpers, or driving into the paint and creating for others, New Orleans had no answer for Lillard early on.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans did manage to stay in the game despite the early onslaught from Lillard, stemming the tide with some hot shooting of their own (52.2 FG% and 4 of 7 from deep). Lonzo Ball (seven points) and Zion Williamson (six points) led New Orleans’ effort, but there was good balance with seven different Pelicans scoring in the first quarter.

However, it wasn’t all good news. Steven Adams left the game at the 2:25 mark of the first with an apparent ankle injury and did not return.

Adams has been stellar for New Orleans this season. If he’s forced to miss any significant time, his presence in the middle will be very difficult to replace despite how well Willy Hernangomez has been playing of late.

With Lillard on the bench for much of the second quarter, New Orleans came roaring back. They won the frame 39-24, and again, seven different Pelicans got into the scoring column, led by Lonzo Ball (nine points) and Willy Hernangomez (9 points). The Pelicans took a 69-59 lead into halftime.

It must be noted that Ball played really well offensively in the first half, scoring 16 points and hitting 4 of 5 from deep. It was a pleasant surprise considering he began the game with two turnovers.

Hernangomez played the entire second quarter in Adams’ absence. In addition to his nine-point second quarter total, he was active on the glass, grabbing seven rebounds. Hernangomez would finish the game with a double-double, netting 11 points and a new career-high of 17 rebounds.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The second half was dominated by the team’s two biggest stars — Damian Lillard and Zion Williamson scored 22 points apiece. In countering Dame’s 43 for the game, Zion eclipsed the 30-point mark once again, scoring 36 points to go with six rebounds and four assists. As we’ll get to though, he should have been given a chance to add to his stat line in the game’s final seconds.

While Williamson performed well in the third quarter, scoring 10 points and drawing six free throw attempts, he unfortunately mostly flew solo. The next closest contributor was Brandon Ingram with four points. No other Pelicans scored more than two points.

Defensively, New Orleans broke down as Portland converted 57.1% of their field goals in the third quarter, including half of their three-pointers (6 of 12). Lillard led all third-quarter scorers with 11 points to help the Blazers take a three-point lead into the final frame.

Zion was again unstoppable in the fourth to lead all scorers with 12 points. He made smart decisions with the ball and his aggressiveness late resulted in four crucial free throw attempts — of which he hit all four. There has been a lot of discussion about Brandon Ingram as a closer for New Orleans this season, but Zion’s recent “Power Point” show gives me reason to think that Williamson, not Ingram, will eventually be the guy for the Pelicans in closing minutes. Sure wish that plan had been adopted for tonight’s game.

Following a Lillard And-1 to put the Blazers ahead by two with 16.5 seconds remaining in regulation, New Orleans had an opportunity to win the game on the final possession. They failed, kind of spectacularly, too.

Ball inbounded to Ingram, who then ran a pick-and-roll with Zion but found no space. Having drawn Portland’s best defender in Robert Covington, Ingram kicked the ball out to Ball, who launched a very deep three-point shot with eight seconds remaining. Josh Hart gave New Orleans life by tapping the rebound out which resulted in a highly contested mid-range jumper from Ingram, which he missed.

“We just tried to get in a two-man game with our two best players,” Stan Van Gundy said in postgame. “That was all we tried to get. We tried to get Brandon and Zion two-man game together, didn’t get much out it, but great play by Josh keeping it alive. We got two shots down the stretch, probably not the ones we’d like to get, but we got two shots down the stretch. Just frustrating.”

The New Orleans head coach would go on to say that the offense played well, and he was right — a 131.9 ORTG is ridiculously good, but the focus will be on the waning seconds rather than a defense that continues to stumble.

Despite their hot fourth quarters, neither Zion Williamson nor JJ Redick (10 points) touched the ball on the final possession, a fact that will no doubt frustrate Pelicans fans and coaches alike after having dropped another winnable game on the season.

New Orleans now falls to 12-16 in the Western Conference standings. They’ll next take the floor again this Friday in a home game against Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns.

It doesn’t get any easier folks. Let’s just hope the Pelicans are learning vital lessons from some of these stinging defeats.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @JamDunn06.