NEW ORLEANS – All season long, Solomon Hill has been telling anyone who would listen that the New Orleans Pelicans’ identity would have to be found on the defensive end of the court.
On Tuesday night, he showed just how right he could be as the Pelicans destroyed the Portland Trail Blazers 100-77 at the Smoothie King Center.
The win was even more important in the context of the Western Conference playoff chase, with Portland sitting ninth in the standings with New Orleans entering the contest 5.5 games out.
“The defense has always kind of been there for us,” said Hill. “Everybody is really getting caught up and it’s what we want to do defensively.”
DeMarcus Cousins led six players in double figures with 22 points and Anthony Davis added 15 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Jordan Crawford reached double figures for the fourth consecutive game since joining the Pels, leading all reserves with 13 points.
Damian Lillard had a game-high 29 points to lead Portland. Shabazz Napier was the only other Blazer to reach double digits, finishing with 10 points. C.J. McCollum, with Hill as his primary defender for much of the night, was held to eight points on 4-of-12 shooting.
“C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard can average together 65 points easily,” added Hill. “We take one of the heads of the snake away and it changed the game. Damian can go out there and get as many as he wants, but if you quiet C.J. just a little bit, they’re a different team, and just knowing that affects the game.”
The 77 points were the fewest allowed by the Pelicans all season and the fewest scored by Portland this year. The Blazers converted just 27 of 76 shot attempts (30.3 %), the lowest output by any New Orleans opponent so far.
The Pelicans also held Portland to just two second-chance points and 18 points in the paint, both season-lows.
The Trail Blazers came into the game averaging just under 120 points per game over their last six contests.
“I thought Solomon (Hill) did a great job on C.J. (McCollum) and obviously Jrue (Holiday) did a good job on Damian (Lillard),” said Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry. “(Lillard) had that little spurt there where he got going, but for the most part, we felt like we had him under control and then after that, when you get broken down, the backside of your defense has to be good and I thought we did a really good job of – even when those guys got beat, of being able to step up and take away some of the easy stuff that they usually get.”
The game certainly didn’t look like a runaway from the outset. The first quarter was extremely sluggish as both teams tried to find their way. The Pelicans put together a 7-0 run to close the quarter and take an early 23-16 lead. Portland was 4-of-20 shooting in the period.
“The first quarter we didn’t shoot the ball well,” said Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts. “I thought we were loose with the ball even though we only had two turnovers; but the turnovers caught up with us in the second quarter. We just could never really get on track offensively.”
Early in the second quarter, New Orleans held a 31-28 lead. Portland committed four turnovers over the next four minutes as the Pelicans went on a game changing 12-0 run. During the run, Davis rolled his ankle and headed to the locker room. He not return until the outset of the third quarter.
But his frontcourt mate Cousins stepped up in his absence, scoring eight of New Orleans’ 12 points during that spurt as New Orleans suddenly led by 15. The Pelicans grabbed a 50-36 lead into the locker room at the half.
With Davis and Cousins back on the floor in the third, New Orleans continued to pour it on, opening the quarter with an 8-2 run. Portland cut the lead to 16 on a Lillard three-pointer, before Boogie Cousins found Anthony Davis for a beautiful 180-degree alley-oop slam that brought the crowd to its feet and effectively ended the night for the Trail Blazers.
Portland made just 11 shots in the second half and got no closer than 18 points the rest of the way.
“I’d put it up there in the top five (of his career),” Davis said with Cousins standing next to him. “I just went to go set the screen for Jrue, and he made the quick pass to DeMarcus and he threw it a little short so I had to go get it…(Laughs) It was a nice one, definitely in my top five.”
This was one of those nights when the potential of the Davis/Cousins pairing is on full display, especially defensively. The two combined for five steals and five blocked shots.
Cousins knows that this is still a work in progress but he feels good about the direction the team is headed.
“I think it’s tough to score in the paint around us,” said Cousins. “Do we have it down pat chemistry-wise all the way? No. But I think you can see the potential and I think you can see us growing each game. If we continue on the path we’re on right now I think we can be a scary tandem down in the paint.”
“I think it can become something special, it’s just going to take some time. It’s a b—- for bigs (facing them). You think get a break when one guy goes out and another one’s coming in or you have to pick your poison when both of us are on the floor.”
Now for the first time in the Davis/Cousins era, the Pelicans have won back-to-back games. With just 15 games remaining in the regular season, New Orleans must string together more than a couple of wins to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.
If Cousins and Davis can continue to work this way together, and if the role players can continue to show up as they did Tuesday, the Pelicans may just get there.
If is the key word.