Damian Lillard was not pleased that the Portland Trail Blazers sat him as a precaution for their visit to New Orleans Thursday night as he continues to ease back from a calf injury.
It spoiled an anticipated matchup against CJ McCollum, his longtime former teammate and good friend.
Next came news that Jusuf Nurkic (right adductor soreness) and Shaedon Sharpe (right finger sprain) also would be sidelined with injuries.
With so many key bodies down, the Blazers appeared to be a long shot to win at the Smoothie King Center.
But once again, the Blazers’ available players elevated their games, the defense continued to thrive and Portland pulled off a 106-95 victory.
Jerami Grant led the Blazers with 27 points and Anfernee Simons scored 23. But it was the defense that carried the night, holding down a Pelicans team that entered Thursday averaging 118.2 points per game, third-best in the NBA.
Simons began slowly, going scoreless and missing all five of his shots in the first quarter. But like he always does, Simons kept firing and eventually his shots began to fall. He scored 10 points in the second quarter, then added 11 more in the third.
The Blazers shot 43.5% from the field, including 35.3% from three-point range. And perhaps the most encouraging statistic was nine — as in nine turnovers. The team had been averaging 17.2, tied for the most in the NBA.
“Obviously, the thing I’m most proud of in this game is our turnovers,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. “When you don’t turn it over, teams don’t score in transition on you. I like our defense in the half court. They do a decent enough job. I thought our zone was incredible in this game tonight. We just kept fighting.”
Zion Williamson led the Pelicans with 29 points. McCollum finished with 13 points and seven assists. Brandon Ingram, who fouled out with 3:32 remaining, had 14 points and five rebounds.
The Blazers held the Pelicans to 41.8% shooting.
“Very huge win,” Blazers forward Justise Winslow said. “This is a team we’re going to see four times this year. They’ve been playing well. We had people down and out. But it’s always next-man up mentality. Guys stepped up and guys made necessary plays when we needed.”
WHAT IT MEANS
Before the season started, this six-game trip looked like it would be a doozy for the Blazers (9-3). But they surprisingly have won four of the first five games, even though Lillard has sat three times, Nurkic and Simons have each missed two games and Grant has been sidelined once. The Pelicans fell to 6-6.
“We’ve played some really good teams on this trip and we’ve earned every single thing on this trip, so far,” Billups said. “We thought that it was going to be a very challenging trip and it has been.”
JERAMI GRANT DELIVERS
Before the game, Billups said he told Grant, who played 42 minutes, that the team would need everything he had given how shorthanded they were.
In fact, Billups told Grant and Simons to take some questionable shots here and there in order to create offense with Lillard, Nurkic and Sharpe out.
“I thought Jerami was big time all night,” Billups said.
One of Grant’s biggest moments came with 4:56 remaining when drove the lane, elevated and dunked over two Pelicans defenders to give the Blazers a 97-89 lead.
“For a guy that’s not aggressive, there was a lot of aggression on that dunk,” Billups said. “I think he knows that once you go down there, if you don’t dunk it hard, they could block it… I though it was just a great move and an even better finish.”
With three key players out, that left the Blazers’ bench thin. Coach Chauncey Billups went with an eight-man rotation, and Nassir Little was a key option. He came through with 15 points and four rebounds, while hitting 6 of 11 shots. He made several key baskets in the second half.
“I was really proud and happy for Nas,” Billups said.
The only other players to come off the bench were Trendon Watford and Jabari Walker. The pair combined for six points and eight rebounds. Watford had three steels.
Billups said both did a good job of helping the offense become less stagnant late in the game by making smart plays with the ball.
“Those guys we depend on to just make things go,” Billups said. “Their numbers most of the time won’t be noticeable on the stat sheet.”
The Blazers close out their six-game trip Saturday at 5:30 pm at Dallas (6-5).
— Aaron Fentress reported from New Orleans.
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook). Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts