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CJ McCollum appreciative of Portland’s love, then helps Pelicans upend Trail Blazers, 117-107

New Orleans didn’t play their best, but they notched the ever-important victory

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are still capable of heart-attack inducing, late-game performances. Fortunately this season, they’ve come out ahead more often than not.

New Orleans escaped Portland with a 117-107 victory over the Trail Blazers in the first game of its pivotal, four-game West Coast swing.

“We just had to pick up our sense of urgency,” Willie Green said. “The guys understand, Portland, they play hard. A lot of guys on their team are trying to earn an opportunity in the NBA. Those guys, they’re not giving you anything for free. They go out, they play hard, they rebound the ball, they play together. The important thing for us was to win the game.”

CJ McCollum scored a team-high 25 points in his first game at the Moda Center since being traded to New Orleans. And his late three put the final nail in his old team’s coffin. But it didn’t come easy.

CJ’s return to Portland was a happy but tiring experience.

“It was very cool to be out there and to see the love, the standing ovation and all that type of stuff,” McCollum said. “To be a part of that was something special, something myself and my family will probably never forget. I’m appreciative of it and thankful. I thought it was a special moment.

“I’m glad it’s over, I’m tired. I’m emotionally and physically drained. I’m glad it’s over. I’m looking forward to getting to the next city and try and get some more wins before we wrap things up. But it was good to be here, good to see a lot of familiar faces and play here.”

Brandon Ingram added 19, doing most of his damage at the free throw line. Ingram was 11-13, pacing the Pels who converted 79.5 percent of their 39 attempts as a team. New Orleans outscored the Blazer by 16 at the stripe and got into the bonus early in both the third and fourth quarters.

Jonas Valanciunas had a strong second half, shaking off a sore foot to collect another double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Jaxson Hayes finished with 18 points.

Drew Eubanks led the Blazers with 21 points on 10-12 shooting to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

It was an ugly performance against a severely undermanned Portland squad. Outside of an 18-9 opening flourish, New Orleans was disjointed offensively. The Blazers were able to get whatever shot they wanted, and surprisingly they made them early.

Even after the Pelicans started to put the clamps on defensively, too many possessions ended in poorly selected three-point attempts. Collectively, the Pels made six threes. McCollum (3), Trey Murphy (2), and Hayes (1) accounted for all of them. The rest of the team was 0-10.

Jose Alvarado and Herb Jones took advantage of the inexperienced Blazers lineup and created turnovers, collecting eight of the team’s 16 steals. New Orleans was able to convert those mistakes into 21 badly-needed points. When the Pelicans had the opportunity to run, they did well, posting a 31-10 advantage in transition points.

Portland tried to spread the Pelicans out with small-ball lineups, but New Orleans’ interior defense was fairly solid, collecting six blocks. Larry Nance continues to affect shots while he shakes off the rust after his long layoff, and Naji Marshall provided effective minutes on the defensive end as well.

The main takeaway from the game was the win. The Pelicans had to have it. With the Lakers fighting for their playoff lives and the Clippers with Paul George awaiting, the Pels could not lose this game.

With San Antonio losing to the Grizzlies and the Lakers with the night off, the Pels have a 1.5 game lead over 10th in the West. They are as healthy as they are probably going to get outside of a surprise Zion Williamson return. The chance to put distance between themselves and their closest pursuers is right in their hands.

The Pelicans have risen to the challenge more times than they probably should have this season. Time to prove that they can rise to meet it when they absolutely have to.

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 @DMGrubb.