Jaxson Hayes and Hassan Whiteside try to grab a rebound in a December game

Pelicans shootaround update presented by HUB International: New Orleans seeks season-series sweep vs. Portland

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

PORTLAND – There are a series of factors that have helped turn around New Orleans’ season after a 6-22 start to 2019-20, but one of the most obvious has been the team’s improved health. After the Pelicans often had more key players sidelined by injury than their opponents through mid-December, that’s swung in the other direction recently. It’s the case again Friday, when ninth-place Portland (25-31) will try to prevent 11th-place New Orleans (23-32) from creating a deadlock in the loss column in the Western Conference standings, while competing without All-Star guard Damian Lillard. It’s the second time this season that the Trail Blazers will miss their best player against the Pelicans, who are gunning for a 4-0 series sweep tonight (9:30 p.m. Central time, ESPN, Fox Sports New Orleans, ESPN New Orleans 100.3 FM).

The DNP is particularly rare for Lillard, who has only missed two games all season, as well as just two contests last season. The Trail Blazers dropped games in November to Milwaukee and New Orleans sans Lillard, but did not experience a drastic dropoff in offensive performance, averaging 116.5 points, including 129 at Fiserv Forum.

“He’s another scorer, another facilitator, a leader on their team,” Pelicans first-time All-Star forward Brandon Ingram said of Lillard. “But they have other guys to step up in his position. We have to be still be locked and loaded, and ready for whoever comes out.”

Shooting guard C.J. McCollum becomes the focal point of Portland’s offense with Lillard sidelined. The Lehigh product has often been effective vs. New Orleans, highlighted by his NBA breakout game, a 37-point eruption to open the 2015-16 campaign. He also was one of the few Blazers who shot well (52 percent from field, 42 percent on threes) during the ’18 first-round playoff sweep by the Pelicans.

“Dame’s one of the best players in the league,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “With him out, obviously C.J. is going to step up, but they have other guys who are capable of having big nights. We’ve just got to come out and play defense and go from there.

“(We want to) just try to make (McCollum’s) night as tough as possible. You know he’s going to make tough shots, but try to throw different looks at him and contest every shot.”

Other notes from shootaround at Moda Center in Oregon:

Kenrich Williams discussed the injection he got in his lower back during the All-Star break, which helped alleviate the pain and discomfort he had been experiencing. Williams hopes to be ready to play in “probably about a week.”

Williams explained that he was hoping his back injury would improve merely with rest and time to heal, but it wasn’t making the progress he and the team desired.

“I tried to give it time and let it heal on its own, but it kept bothering me,” the second-year forward said. “It was frustrating, but after the shot I feel a lot better.” …

Williams on the progress the Pelicans have made as a team: “It’s been fun to watch the team grow. Every game I feel like we’re growing as a team, getting better. Of course we’ve got Zion (Williamson) back now and it’s going to be fun to play with him. I’m just looking forward to getting back.” …

Two of Portland’s three worst three-point shooting games percentage-wise this season have come against New Orleans. Furthermore, in the two games Lillard played, he shot a shocking 0/14 from beyond the arc.

Ingram on the defensive focus Friday against the Trail Blazers: “Limit their threes and be the aggressor on the defensive end and have each other’s back. It’s important to continue to do that.”

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