Too much Cousins, Pelican offense for Blazers
The Trail Blazers had plenty to be concerned about after their 123-116 loss to New Orleans Saturday night at Moda Center.
If there were a "gimme" on the schedule over the next week or so for the Blazers, this was it.
The Pelicans were going without injured All-Star forward Anthony Davis and playing the second of back-to-back games after a 114-108 loss at Utah on Friday night.
After this, Portland (13-10) plays host to NBA Southeast Division leader Washington (12-10) on Tuesday and Southwest Division leader Houston (17-4) on Saturday before heading out on a five-game trip that opens with Pacific Division leader Golden State (17-6).
But DeMarcus Cousins was a human destroyer and got plenty of help from an impressive array of guards as the Pelicans (12-11) snapped a three-game losing streak.
The 6-11 Cousins scored 38 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and the Pelicans shot superbly — .523 from the field and .484 from 3-point range, sinking 15 of 31 from beyond the arc.
"It was a great team effort," Cousins said. "My partner in crime (Davis) went out last night, and we crumbled as a team. We tried to come in tonight with no excuses and left it all on the floor. I tried to be aggressive, tried to keep pressure on their bigs."
Cousins did that, drawing five fouls in 24 minutes from Jusuf Nurkic and four fouls in 16 minutes from Meyers Leonard.
"I'd like to stop DeMarcus every time, but he is by far the most-talented 'big' in the NBA," Leonard said. "You just do what you can to slow him down."
Portland entered the night ranked No. 2 in the NBA in team defensive rating, but the Blazers had their hands full with the Pelicans, even without Davis. The 123 points were the second-most Portland has given up all year, shy only of the 125 the Blazers yielded in a 127-125 win over Brooklyn on Nov. 24. The .522 shooting percentage was third-best by a Portland opponent this season.
"The defense was nowhere near the level we need it to be if we want to win a game," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said.
Lillard scored 29 points and dished out eight assists with one turnover in 40 minutes, but he made only 11 of 25 shots from the field. CJ McCollum had 17 points but was 8 for 22 from the field, including 1 for 6 on 3-point attempts.
"I think we'll take 19 for 47," said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, speaking of the combined shooting of Portland's starting backcourt. "Our 'bigs' did a great job of being up on the screen, and the guards did a great job of fighting over the top."
"Those are two of the toughest guards to defend in this league," Cousins said. "To throw the word 'stop' out there is insane. You're just trying to contain them. They put so much pressure on the pick-and-rolls. They're a tough cover, but we did our assignment on them well tonight."
The Pelicans, meanwhile, have a half-dozen productive guards, led by E'Twaun Moore (19 points on 6-for-7 shooting), Jrue Holiday (17 points) and Rajon Rondo (12 points, 10 assists), who were all in the starting lineup. Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen and Ian Clark came off the bench and made contributions.
"Truly a team win," Gentry said.
The Blazers started as if they'd blow the Pelicans out of the building, leading 31-17 late in the first quarter. New Orleans outscored them 9-2 to close the quarter, cutting the deficit to 33-26. The Pelicans scored the final eight points of the second quarter to take a 60-57 lead into intermission.
New Orleans started the third quarter on a 23-8 run to go ahead 83-65. It was 96-77 late in the quarter and 98-82 heading into the final period.
Portland made the long climb back in the fourth quarter, and when Lillard bombed in a long-range 3 with 12 seconds to go, the Pelicans' advantage was only 121-116. Shabazz Napier stole the inbound pass but missed a reverse layup that would have cut the difference to three points with eight seconds left.
Moore then iced the verdict with a pair of foul shots with 7.4 ticks left.
"We didn't finish the first and second quarters," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We didn't start off the third quarter. That was pretty much the game. Between those three segments, they outscored us by 30 (points), at least. We have to maintain our focus better. It seems like sometimes when the offense is coming easy, we don't have the same focus defensively."
"We had a great start and then we fell asleep," Nurkic said. "When they have a lead and we try to come back, it's hard.
"We kind of got lazy. We can't do that. We know we're a great team when we bring it. (The Pelicans) outhustled us. They played harder than us.
"Maybe we thought we did enough to mess around. Life comes hard at you. When you figure out you're not that good and you can't turn it on any time you want. … you need to play 48 minutes to win a game. We didn't do that tonight."
Nurkic struggled through his foul-plagued performance, totaling 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting, with five rebounds in 24 minutes.
"I need to bring it every night," he said. "I didn't tonight."
Leonard was much more effective, coming through with his best all-around performance of the season. It came a game after getting booed following a third-quarter shot that grazed the rim in a Thursday night loss to Milwaukee. Nurkic came to his defense after the game, calling out the fans for singling out Leonard.
The 7-1 Leonard worked hard at both ends Saturday night, scoring a season-high 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including 2 for 2 from 3-point range. He had two rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes and battled Cousins in the trenches, even drawing a flagrant foul when slapping Cousins' head on a shot in the third quarter.
"I was really happy for Meyers," Stotts said. "Everybody knows about what happened last game with him. For him to respond with a game like that was good for him, and we certainly needed him. He played a good defensive game as far as being physical. It helps when he makes shots. The matchup with Cousins was an interesting one as well."
Leonard and Cousins have had their antagonistic on-court moments in the past. When it was suggested there were heated moments Saturday night, however, Cousins demurred.
"It wasn't heated at all," he said. "Let me hit you in your head and see how you feel about it."
Smiling at his funny, Cousins continued, "No, he was just making a competitive play. He was trying to win, just like everybody else on the floor. I didn't take it that way at all."
Portland fell to 7-6 at home this season.
"We need to be better." Stotts said. "If we are the team we want to be, we need to be better at home, no question."
Nurkic: "If we want to be a playoff team, we need to play with an edge and win home games."
NOTES — Portland got lucky with missing Davis this season. He played only five minutes before suffering an injury in the teams' first meeting, a 103-93 Portland win on Oct. 24. … Even without Davis, New Orleans won the rebound battle with Portland 43-35, with forward Dante Cunningham leading the way with 12. … Portland had won 13 of the previous 14 meetings with New Orleans at Moda Center. "We've struggled in this building," Gentry said. … The Blazers committed a season-low five turnovers and were 11 for 11 at the line. … The Pelicans started the 6-4 Moore, 6-4 Holiday and 6-1 Rondo. The last time Gentry started three players 6-4 or shorter? "In high school, I did," he said. … Cousins got away with at least one traveling play, which was called a foul on Leonard. Did he get some help from the officials Saturday night? "Maybe occasionally," Leonard said. "I thought I squared him up on a couple of those plays, but (the referees') reasoning for not being a charge was fair. Maybe he shuffles his feet on the post-ups a time or two, but it's impossible for them to see everything." … Stotts on Rondo: "The first thought that comes to mind with him is he's an NBA champion. When they put that team together in Boston, everyone thought he was the weak link. He disproved that notion. He runs a team. Every coach he's ever had talks about how smart he is. High basketball IQ. He sees the game. He's not particularly a shooter, but he can make a shot when you need it. And he makes his teammates better."