Damian Lillard gets fouled by Eric Bledsoe on a last-second jumper

Pelicans try to learn from mistakes after Blazers pull off improbable late-game comeback

by Jim Eichenhofer

It was one of the finest performances of Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s brief NBA career, but only for the first 47 minutes. It was one of the best games New Orleans has played in 2020-21, but only for the first 42 minutes.

Alexander-Walker and his team had much in common when the final buzzer sounded in Moda Center on Tuesday, as the Pelicans dealt with the anguish of realizing that even though the vast majority of their matchup vs. Portland went favorably, the end result told a different story. Portland’s improbable 125-124 victory featured a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in the final six minutes, as well as an even more unlikely series of events in the final seven seconds. The Trail Blazers’ rally turned what should’ve been a fun evening for New Orleans (17-23) into a night of torment and what ifs.

First-year head coach Stan Van Gundy and his staff spent part of Wednesday’s practice reviewing what went wrong in the latter portion of the fourth quarter, including an inbounds play where Alexander-Walker (20 points, 6/9 three-point shooting) mishandled a pass from Lonzo Ball, a costly mistake. But Van Gundy didn’t want to put the blame solely on late-game errors by New Orleans, saying there were plenty of things the Pelicans could’ve done earlier to prevent the defeat.

“Everyone’s focused on (Brandon Ingram’s two missed) free throws, the inbounds play and the foul (on Damian Lillard by Eric Bledsoe) – and none of those were good,” Van Gundy said, alluding to the three-part sequence leading to Lillard’s go-ahead foul shots with 1.2 seconds left. “To me, the bigger problem was with six minutes left when we were up 17, and we stopped playing the way we did to get that lead. We became very, very random in our spacing, we didn’t play with any pace, get (player) movement or ball movement.”

“It just seemed like everything went wrong,” Bledsoe said of the final six minutes. “We stopped being aggressive. We started slowing the ball down a little bit. (Portland) started applying pressure and picked it up in the end. We had multiple opportunities to close the game out. It was a great learning experience.”

Alexander-Walker tied a career high by sinking the six three-pointers, and would’ve notched his first win as a pro while scoring 20-plus points if not for the way the final seven seconds unfolded. Ingram – an 88 percent foul shooter this season – went 0/2 at the stripe, keeping Portland within one possession, followed by Alexander-Walker taking his eyes off Ball’s pass with the Pels up 124-123. Alexander-Walker was on the court partly because he’s an 82 percent foul shooter.

“The guy’s starting his career out and he’s going to be in that situation again, because he’s a good free throw shooter,” Van Gundy said of the 22-year-old. “Hopefully he learns from it. He knows what his mistake was. He took his eyes off the ball and (it deflected off him out of bounds). It’s something he’s got to learn from.”

“Focus on the moment,” Alexander-Walker said of what he’d change about his approach to the play. “I try to think plays ahead. I knew they might try to trap, so I tried to see where the defense would be. But (you have to) catch, then turn. I kind of got ahead of myself.”

“Nickeil had a hell of a game but all people are talking about is that last play,” Bledsoe said of the turnover. “As a team, it didn’t come down to that. Obviously it was a crucial play, but there were a lot of turning points that happened in that game that we could’ve prevented, especially at the defensive end.”

New Orleans, which will face Portland again Thursday in the finale of a two-game series, led 117-100 before Portland’s 16-0 run. Part of that Blazers spurt was a play in which the Pelicans did not box out Lillard, who grabbed an offensive rebound and dished to an open Gary Trent Jr. for a three that cut the margin to 117-113.

“We’ve been on the other side of a comeback like this,” Alexander-Walker said, referring to a February franchise-record 24-point rally to eventually outlast Boston. “So we understand both spectrums of it. All we can do is take what we can from it. We can’t go back – I wish we could. Learn from it, and if we’re in the same position (Thursday against Portland) and have a comfortable lead, we have to make sure we turn a 17-point lead into (20-plus).”

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