PORTLAND, Ore. — The New Orleans Pelicans needed to sweat out the franchise’s first playoff win since 2011 — the first under the Pelicans moniker they adopted before the 2013-14 season and the first of Anthony Davis‘ career.
The last time New Orleans reached the postseason, in 2014-15, the Pelicans led the eventual champion Golden State Warriors by 20 points at the start of the third quarter of Game 3 only to lose the game in overtime and eventually get swept. Game 1 of New Orleans’ series with the Portland Trail Blazers looked as if it might be déjà vu.
Up 19 late in the third quarter, the Pelicans allowed the Blazers to cut the lead to just one point in the final minute with two opportunities to take the lead. New Orleans’ defense came up big both times, forcing a CJ McCollum turnover and a Damian Lillard miss. Then, after two Davis free throws, Jrue Holiday blocked Pat Connaughton‘s layup to seal a 97-95 victory Saturday night at the Moda Center.
After the game, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry raved about Holiday’s defensive effort.
“It’s funny because we always put a clip on (the video edit) that says ‘game-winning plays’ and today it actually was Jrue blocking (Connaughton’s) shot in the Portland game,” Gentry said. “Same guy, almost the exact same area and he came up with another block. I just think, like I’ve said, with Kawhi Leonard not dressed and playing, I don’t know if there’s a better two-way player in the game.”
For much of the night, it looked as if Portland would be lucky not to get blown out. Facing extra defensive attention in the pick-and-roll, Lillard and McCollum shot a combined 1-of-15 from the field in the first half. By the time they found a rhythm late in the third, New Orleans had nearly pushed the lead to 20 points. But the Blazers got just enough production from Lillard and their bench to stay in contact and keep the home crowd in the game.
The Pelicans still led by 13 with 5:08 left but wouldn’t score again for more than 2½ minutes. A McCollum 3-pointer capped an 18-4 Portland run that made the score 93-92 with almost exactly a minute left.
Ultimately, New Orleans got enough from its best players. Davis, who averaged 31.5 points in the series sweep by Golden State in 2014, had 35 points on 14-of-26 shooting this time around — along with 14 rebounds and 4 blocks. Holiday, given the primary defensive assignment on Lillard, also found enough energy to score 21 points at the other end. And Nikola Mirotic added a double-double of his own alongside Davis, knocking down four 3-pointers, blocking four shots and grabbing 11 rebounds.
Then there was Rajon Rondo, who again found another gear in the playoffs. Rondo handed out 17 assists, tying Chris Paul for the most by a Pelicans player, and grabbed eight rebounds. Rondo made only three field goals but one of them was crucial: a layup with two minutes left that, along with an Ian Clark 3 on the previous possession, helped stem Portland’s run and started what has the look of a competitive series with a New Orleans road victory.
“They always say a series doesn’t start until you win on the road,” said Gentry. “I just think if you can win the first game it kind of takes the total edge off.”
“It’s started now then,” counted Lillard. “We can’t let tonight’s loss go into the next game and we’ve got to tighten up, come back sharper and take care of home court next game.”
There’s still a long way to go for New Orleans to win the franchise’s first playoff series in a decade, and only the second in 16 years since the NBA returned to the Big Easy. But on this night, any playoff win was worth celebrating for the Pelicans.
“It means a lot to get that monkey off your back, to get that first win,” Davis said. “But now that’s over with. We want to come in Tuesday and get another one.”