On Wednesday night, Portland travelled to the New Orleans Arena to take on their fellow playoff competitors, the Hornets. And this game definitely brought its fair share of playoff atmosphere, with both teams enjoying dry spells and explosive runs. To add more competitive fuel to the fire, Jarrett Jack and Rudy Fernandez were involved in a physical altercation midway through the 4th quarter, where Jack took exception to a Fernandez elbow after a foul call.
If there was any indication that both teams wanted this game, that was it. After the sandstorm of fierce action subsided, the Hornets emerged as the victorious team. They clamped down on the Trail Blazers defensively in the second half, forcing 9 turnovers, and went on a scoring spurt that eclipsed both the 3rd and 4th quarters, which saw the Hornets go from trailing by 7 to leading by the same margin.
Portland and New Orleans certainly went back-and-forth for the most part, with each team gaining a significant advantage at some point of the game. Portland won the 1st quarter 31-25, while New Orleans raced back to take the second interval 23-19, leaving the Trail Blazers with a 50-48 lead entering half-time. The 3rd quarter ended all square, with both teams putting up 20 points. However, it was the final 12 minutes in which the Hornets took the lead and never looked back, by a 27-21 margin.
After holding steady for three quarters, the Trail Blazers’ defense caved in terms of their effectiveness and intensity, allowing the Hornets to pick up some easy trips on offense. Willie Green was perhaps the major beneficiary of the discombobulated unit, contributing 10 of his 12 points in the final quarter, which also featured a back-breaking putback dunk with less than 7 minutes to go. The frontcourt for the Hornets were no pushovers either. Emeka Okafor made his presence felt with a crunching screen on Gerald Wallace, while Carl Landry got to the line at will and filled in admirably for the injured David West.
Portland made a run that brought the game to within two points with 10 seconds remaining following a Wesley Matthews, but at that point, the comeback came too late. After a foul, New Orleans made their free throws and proceeded to hold the Trail Blazers off the scoreboard for whatever time remained.
Although the Trail Blazers’ effort was certainly lacking when it mattered, the reliable Andre Miller and rising star LaMarcus Aldridge each put in a valiant effort. Miller went 8-12 from the field for 19 points, and also collected 3 rebounds and 5 assists, while Aldridge had himself an impressive double-double, going for 24 points (11-19 shooting) and 15 rebounds, who in addition racked up 2 assists and a steal. Gerald Wallace also joined the double-double club, his to the tune of 14 points on 5-10 shooting and 10 rebounds, to go along posted 3 assists and a blocked shot.
After recording a double-double of his own against the Spurs, Nicolas Batum went from hero to zero in New Orleans, as he missed every shot he took (0-7) and finished with 2 points, and only got his hands on 1 rebound. Wesley Matthews also had a relatively quiet game compared to Monday night’s clutch contributions, scoring just 7 points on 3-7 shooting, with 2 rebounds and an assist. However, Patty Mills proved to be a source of energy coming off the bench, pouring in 13 points on a perfect 5-5 performance, while also gathering an assist and a steal in just 11 minutes of floor time.
The Hornets had 5 players in double figures, 4 of them a part of the starting five. The most prominent of these was recent acquisition Carl Landry, who filled up the void left by David West with ease. He contributed a team-high 21 points on 7-15 attempts, grabbed 6 rebounds, and also added a steal and a block. Emeka Okafor was a force in the paint all night, putting in an efficient 6-9 game for 15 points, inhaled 10 rebounds for a double-double, and also earned 3 blocks, though he changed many more shots the Trail Blazers attempted inside. Sharpshooter Marco Belinelli proved to be a menace for Portland’s perimeter defense, drilling in 5-7 shots for 16 points (4-5 from 3-point range). He essentially forced defenders to stretch to the perimeter, allowing for the frontcourt players such as Landry and Okafor to score at will.
While Chris Paul continues to endure a nightmarish month of March in terms of shooting the basketball (4-15 for 11 points), he did his part in the playmaking and defensive department, delivering 12 assists for his own double-double, 7 rebounds, and a crazy 4 steals. His shot will come around eventually, as I believe he is enduring an unnatural slump.
Portland may have shot better from the field (50.0% to 46.6%) and from behind the arc (35.7 to 33.3%), but New Orleans had them beat at the free throw line (75.9% to 75.0%) and got more chances (22-29 to 12-16) to earn points from the charity stripe. The Trail Blazers also enjoyed a slight edge on the glass (39 to 35), but gave up more turnovers (12 to 9). In addition, the Hornets also collected more blocks as a team (6 to 3).
This proved to be a very costly loss for the Trail Blazers. How costly, to be exact? Portland is now locked in a virtual tie with New Orleans (43-32 records each) for the 6th seed in the Western Conference, but due to the Hornets clinching the head-to-head record (3-1) over the Trail Blazers this season, Portland falls to 7th place.
What awaits the Trail Blazers if they were to remain in that position? A date with the 2-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 1st round. And, given how remarkable the Lakers have been since the All-Star break (a 15-1 record), this spells a likely first-round exit.
To avoid this disappointment, Portland will have to win most of their remaining games in order to at least ensure the 6th seed in the Western Conference. That journey begins Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder back home at the Rose Garden. And just like these last few games on the schedule, this is a must-win for the Trail Blazers to ensure playoff security.