It’s highly unusual that a must-win game can exist with a quarter of the regular season schedule remaining, but Wednesday night was that rare exception.
The New Orleans Pelicans, who had lost four games in a row and 13 of their last 20 to slide into 10th in the Western Conference, needed to find the win column in the worst way. Behind one of their most spirited efforts of the season, they did, beating the Portland Trail Blazers, 121-110.
The Pelicans seized control towards the end of the third quarter, outscoring the Trail Blazers by a 41-25 margin over the final 14:13 of regulation. Leading the charge was Brandon Ingram, who scored 14 of his season-high 40 points during that decisive stretch.
Game Recap: pic.twitter.com/wxhyinL3ee— Larry Nance Jr (@Larrydn22) March 2, 2023
Ingram was unstoppable throughout the contest but downright flawless when it mattered most. He made 6-of-7 field goals from the 2:13 mark of the third quarter onwards, missing only a single 3-pointer while adding three assists against no turnovers.
Conversely, Damian Lillard, who poured in 41 points on the night, went 3 of 6 from the field and had no assists versus two turnovers over the same time frame.
“I’m extremely proud of Brandon,” Willie Green said in postgame. “I thought on one of the biggest stages, which is a nationally televised game, he comes out and dominates. That’s what we need from him. He’s one of the better players in the league.”
A major reason why Ingram outshined Lillard when the lights were brightest was the coaching staff’s defensive game plan. They wanted to make life as difficult as possible for the Portland star point guard. The players executed that concept well. The Pelicans’ defense picked him up full court at times, rotated fresh bodies on him consistently, and denied him the ball on certain possessions while forcing it out of his hands on others with timely double-teams.
“He’s a great player,” Green said. “He gets downhill. He gets to the free throw line. He shoots the 3-ball. I thought we did a really solid job of just making everything physical and tough for him all night.
Holding Lillard to just 2-of-9 shooting from 3-point range and zero assists is indicative of a good collective effort by the Pelicans defense. Just five days ago, Dame dropped 71 points on 13-of-22 shooting from deep and six assists against the Houston Rockets.
So yes, restricting Lillard to 41 points without getting burned by the unlimited range on his 3-ball or play-making abilities counts as an enormous win. There’s few who knew how to draw a personal foul better, but if the damage can be limited to a friendly referee whistle, one should choose that option every day of the week.
While Jaxson Hayes (15 points, four rebounds, two steals, two blocks) was clearly more effective than Willy Hernangomez, a lot of the Pelicans’ success against Lillard stemmed from electing to play small-ball lineups.
“We kind of had it in our back pockets,” Green said. “Knowing that if we blitz him with Billy and Jax, what if we go with Herb at the 5? We were able to get to it and we liked what we saw. Just long, athletic guys all over the place, throwing different looks, scrambling, multiple efforts.”
Herb Jones was not only a central force defensively, having him at the five removed him from standing behind the 3-point line and serving as a floor spacer.
“Herb was great,” Green said. “We’ve got to use him like that at times, and not just have him in the corner offensively for us. Putting him in pick-and-rolls, allowing him to dive, allowing him to initiate plays at times. Right now is the time we have to make adjustments and I think that’s what myself and our staff are doing. We’re looking at the film and saying, how can we create offense for ourselves? So, tonight, it was good to see us kind of break through.”
With Larry Nance Jr. out for the foreseeable future due to a left ankle sprain, utilizing small ball lineups with Herb at the 5 makes a lot of sense moving forward against teams without a traditional center on the floor.
CJ McCollum also deserves to be lauded for his performance. In the first matchup of his career against Damian Lillard, he tallied a line of 24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two 3s.
The Pelicans reached the 120-point plateau for the first time since their victory over the Sacramento Kings nearly a month ago. The biggest reason for that was they turned the ball over only six times, establishing a new season best in that category.
One other interesting note, Trey Murphy finally saw his 3-point shot fall through the net a few times in the second half. He had been struggling mightily from deep since getting supplanted by Josh Richardson in the starting lineup. Having him launch a good number of 3-point attempts, though, should always be a priority.
Trey Murphy finished 3 for 10 from 3-point range, knocking down 3 of 6 in the second half.— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) March 2, 2023
The Pelicans improved to 12-1 on the season when Murphy attempts at least 8 3s in a game. https://t.co/0FElO7CJOV
“We talked about it after the game, but he and CJ both, they just put us on their backs and carried us,” Green said. “And the rest of the guys, Herb, Naji, Billy, Jax, Kira, Dyson, J-Rich, Trey, I can go down the list, but all of those guys came in and contributed. That’s what it’s going to take.”
The Pelicans finally resembled a team that can win a big game again. The execution was on point. The stars shined, as did other players in their roles. The Pelicans will have to find a way to repeat this type of performance plenty more times over the remainder of the schedule, but Wednesday marks a good start.
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 @OlehKosel.