By Nekias Duncan
For the last three seasons, the Portland Trail Blazers have been defined by their dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum. Lillard is a double-splittin’, bar-spittin’ phenom who can catch fire from deep and end games with timely buckets. McCollum has somewhat quietly developed into one of the game’s most complete scorers, a three-level threat with a slithery handle and a smooth jumper.
When they’re both on their game, depth almost doesn’t matter. They’ve showcased the ability to overwhelm teams with a barrage of buckets, contested or otherwise. When one or both are off, things tend to go poorly for Portland. “Team wins when their best players play well” isn’t a shocking development in a vacuum, but the lack of shot creation on the roster puts extra pressure on Lillard and McCollum to perform.
The Blazers found themselves in trouble on Wednesday night against the Miami Heat. The Heat held a 79-70 lead through three quarters behind hot three-point shooting (12-of-25) and “anybody but him” defense on Lillard. Miami constantly trapped pick-and-rolls initiated by Lillard; when Lillard could shake free, he didn’t have much success (nine points, 2-of-8 shooting, 1-of-5 from three). McCollum was doing his best to carry the load (24 points, 8-of-13 shooting, 3-of-7 from three), but no other Blazer was in double digits.
The tide turned in the fourth quarter. Miami went cold from everywhere, finishing the quarter with 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the floor, and a 1-of-5 clip from three. Portland, on the other hand, got contributions all of the floor en route to a 32-point quarter.
Al-Farouq Aminu drained a pair of triples during Portland’s mid-4th run, and played stellar defense down the stretch. Shabazz Napier made timely buckets, including a twisting flip off the glass that probably should’ve led to a trip to the free throw line.
Ed Davis made his presence felt in two-man action with Lillard. One of his screens sprung Lillard free on the dunk that tied the game. On another possession, he took advantage of Miami’s sideline trapping by faking a dribble-handoff, absorbing contact from Heat rookie Bam Adebayo, and converting a crucial and-one.
Of course, it helped that Lillard finally got going, scoring nine points on 3-of-6 shooting in the final frame. His late explosion helped offset McCollum cooling off (four points, 1-of-3 shooting in the 4th). Still, it’s important to note that Lillard wouldn’t have been in position to seal the deal with help from the role players. If Portland plans on making any noise in the postseason, they’ll need the others to continue stepping up like they did against Miami.
E’Twaun Moore Shining For Pelicans
By Duncan Smith
In a game loaded with fascinating young stars, a lesser-known player played a big role in bringing a victory for the New Orleans Pelicans over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins did pretty much what is expected from them on a game-by-game basis, but E’Twaun Moore’s stellar play was essential for the Pelicans.
Moore scored a preposterous 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 from long range, adding five rebounds and four assists. He has come into his own this season, and over the course of the past five weeks in particular.
Moore has stood out so sharply of late that this remarkable shooting outburst is almost par for the course. Over his last 17 games he’s shot 53.9 percent from three-point range on 4.5 attempts per game. He’s shooting 72.7 percent from three on the road over that stretch, 67.4 percent in December and he’s hit 63.6 percent of his threes on the second game of back to backs.
While certainly these remarkable shooting numbers will eventually regress, perhaps the most important element in play is that Moore has developed into a fearless shooter, willing to fire away with an inch of space to get his shot off. This just gives the Pelicans another weapon to complicate opposition defensive game plans.
Coming into this season, a roster supposedly bereft of shooting has been a delightful surprise. Over the last 15 games, the Pelicans actually lead the NBA in three-point shooting, hitting 41.5 percent from long range. On the season, Rajon Rondo is shooting 37.1 percent, Jameer Nelson 37.7 percent, Anthony Davis 35.7 percent, Darius Miller 45.9 percent and Moore hitting 48.3 percent.
While defense remains a big question mark for this surprising team, the offense is potent thanks to these shooters and E’Twaun Moore in particular. The Pelicans finally have a bevy of dangerous guards to add to their dynamic front court duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.