NEW ORLEANS (AP) — By necessity, Damian Lillard has played hero ball so often this season that it’s difficult to be awed by another sterling performance.
Somehow, he continues topping himself.
Portland’s leading man showcased his clutch credentials with 43 points, including a go-ahead three-point play with 16.5 seconds left, to lift the Trail Blazers to their sixth consecutive victory, 126-124 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night.
Lillard also added 16 assists – his third consecutive game of at least 30 points and 10 assists — for a team playing without backcourt mate CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic.
“Our guys fought hard, but we just could not contain him at all,” said Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy. “Stopping them is 90% stopping him.”
Lillard had 11 fourth-quarter points and was clutch in the final seven minutes. JJ Redick gave the Pelicans a 105-103 lead with 7:34 left, capping a 7-0 New Orleans run, but Lillard then came off the bench and immediately hit a 3-pointer as Portland regained the lead. Anfernee Simons added a 3-pointer on the next possession to make it 109-105.
The Pelicans retook the lead on a pair of 3-pointers by Lonzo Ball and Redick and led for the final time at 124-123 with 26.4 seconds left after Zion Williamson made two free throws. Williamson’s finished with 36 points.
But Lillard drove past Ball on the left side of the lane for the layup and drew contact to put Portland up 126-124.
“There were 26 seconds on the clock, and I knew that whether we scored or not, if we just got a quality shot and gave ourselves enough time, even if we fouled and they made both free throws, we still would have had a chance to tie and go into overtime,” Lillard said. “So, it was really no pressure on that possession.
“I just wanted to attack, make an aggressive move. I was able to get some space. I drew contact and I just focused on the finish.”
The Pelicans had a final chance, but Ball missed a 3-pointer and Brandon Ingram threw up an airball at the buzzer.
Lillard had 11 points in the third quarter as the Blazers outscored New Orleans 35-22 to take a 94-91 lead, with Gary Trent Jr. hitting a 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer.
Lillard hit three consecutive 3-pointers in a 1:44 span as part of his 15-point, first-quarter flurry, which keyed a 21-8 run and produced a 35-30 Portland lead. The Blazers led by as many as 11 in the first quarter, but the Pelicans, shooting 52.2%, closed out the period with an 11-5 run.
Lillard played the entire first quarter, but when he sat for the first six minutes of the second, the Pelicans made a move, taking a 45-43 lead behind Williamson’s eight points on an array of power moves to the basket from the high post. New Orleans used a 28-9 run to take a 53-45 lead.
During one five-minute stretch, New Orleans made nine consecutive shots, including two 3-pointers by Ball and one each by Eric Bledsoe and Willy Hernangomez, to stretch its advantage to 64-49. Ball’s 16 first-half points on 4-of-5 shooting from long range helped the Pelicans to a 39-24 edge in the second quarter and gave the Pelicans a 69-59 halftime lead.
Trail Blazers: The Blazers’ postgame flight from Oklahoma City to New Orleans on Tuesday night was canceled due to bad weather, forcing them to fly to New Orleans on Wednesday afternoon and bus directly to the Smoothie King Center. … Coach Terry Stotts gushed over seeing Williamson for the first time. “He’s playing off the dribble, gets to the rim, being a passer, being a facilitator. He’s shooting at an unbelievable rate, mainly because he gets to the rim.”
Pelicans: Starting C Steven Adams left in the first quarter with a right ankle injury. … Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said Williamson is expanding his game quickly by taking opponents off the dribble. Williamson entered the game with an effective field-goal percentage of 62.2, just behind NBA leader Steph Curry (62.3).
Trail Blazers: Host Washington on Saturday.
Pelicans: Host Phoenix on Friday.