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Trail Blazers 106, Pelicans 95: Load Management
With Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic out, the Blazers' role players outworked a full-strength New Orleans team.
It's getting harder night-to-night to decide which of the Trail Blazers' nine wins is their best of the season.
Is it the home opener in overtime against the Suns? The Oct. 24 blowout of a very good Nuggets team? The buzzer-beating win in Phoenix to open the road trip without Damian Lillard or Anfernee Simons? The comeback in Miami?
How about Thursday night: On the second night of a back-to-back, five games into a grueling six-game trip, with their franchise player (Lillard), starting center (Jusuf Nurkic) and standout rookie (Shaedon Sharpe) all on the shelf against the deep, playoff-bound New Orleans Pelicans playing at full strength. That would qualify.
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A lot of the enthusiasm for this game was dampened hours before when the team announced Lillard would sit out, meaning his first-ever game on the opposite side of the ball to CJ McCollum will have to wait until March. It's unclear if load-managing Lillard on the back-to-backs as he recovers from a calf strain will be the plan going forward, but in the short term, that's the approach the Blazers are taking.
And with the way this road trip has gone so far, who can blame them? By beating Charlotte on Wednesday, Portland earned at least a 3-3 showing on this extended trip, which can be called a success under any circumstances. You'd better believe Lillard wanted to go against McCollum on Thursday. Hell, if it were up to him, he wouldn't have missed their last home game against Memphis, or either of the two back-to-back games in Phoenix. But because the Blazers are stacking wins the way they have, they can afford to err on the side of protecting him for April and beyond.
None of that mattered on Thursday. As they have all trip, the players Portland had available to them on that given night found a way. They did it shorthanded by doing what they've done well all season, defending without fouling, rebounding and sharing the ball. The turnovers that have been their biggest issue all year were not a factor tonight. Only eight as a team is no small feat for a team that's been coughing the ball up as much as they have this season, especially against a team with Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado guarding on the other side.
After winning them the first Phoenix game more or less by himself, Jerami Grant stepped up again and did the same in New Orleans, scoring early and late. In the Suns game, he did it because Lillard and Simons were out; tonight, he did it because Simons' shot was off early.
Games like this are why I wrote in Tuesday's mailbag column that the impending minutes crunch when everyone gets healthy is more theoretical than anything. It's very rare during the season for teams to have their entire rotation healthy. The upside of the Blazers' current "too many guys" problem is that Nassir Little, after playing just seven minutes against Miami, is more than capable of scoring 15 points off the bench in a game like this. I still think Joe Cronin is going to make a trade to balance the roster at some point before the deadline, but in the meantime, the depth issues that have plagued the Blazers in years past are not a factor right now.
The road trip wraps up on Saturday in Dallas. At worst, the Blazers will come home 9-4, in great shape to kick off a three-game homestand, with this thing looking more real and sustainable by the day.