The gasps reached a crescendo when McCollum –one of six holdovers from last year’s 51-win team –put New Orleans Ish Smith in the blender launching a 3-pointer to score his 20th, 21st and 22nd points of the first quarter.
Including an assist to Allen Crabbe, McCollum accounted for the final 13 points of the opening quarter where the Blazers led the Pelicans 43-18.
“It was quite the exhibition,” head coach Terry Stotts said.
Even Lillard let himself become a fan — who has been telling the media at every chance about McCollum’s abilities — watching his close friend have the game of his life.
“When I see him rocking side-to-side, I got an idea what’s coming next,” Lillard said. “I kind of had a fan moment at the end of the first quarter when he ran off about 11 straight. It was fun to watch.”
On the final possession of the first quarter that made the crowd go wild, McCollum simply went back in time.
“I just think about playing at the park, playing 1-on-1 with my brother,” McCollum said. “Coach calls ‘flat,’ and my face lights up. ‘Yes, I get to boogie, I get to go to work.'”
And McCollum boogied all night long, even when the Pelicans threatened their lead multiple times in the final period.
“He hit one over (Anthony Davis) hand and we all had hands in his face, but he was hitting shots,” Pelicans guard Eric Gordon said.
When the Pelicans cut the lead to eight with under four minutes left, McCollum put the Blazers back-up double-digits for good.
And he added five more points after that to ease the Pelicans off into that good night.
“Down the stretch at the end of the game, he made big shots,” Lillard said. “He separated us (at the end).”
McCollum added: “Ive been waiting for this a long time. I read everything you guys write — ‘He’s not big enough to play the 2. He’s not this. He’s not that.’ — and I just use all that as motivation.”
The Pelicans, decimated by injuries on the perimeter, were no match for the combination of Lillard’s steady play and McCollum’s efficiency.
Davis continued his suboptimal start to the season, until the fourth quarter when he didn’t miss a shot. Davis finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
McCollum had 28 points — already a regular season career-high — by halftime and the Blazers led by 27 at the break.
After putting up a similar first half in their final preseason game against the Clippers, only to blow a 35-point lead and lose, the Blazers learned a lesson.
“When we came in this game, we just said ‘Weather the storm’,” Lillard said.
Al-Farouq Aminu — eager to prove himself in a bigger role and the highest-paid player on the Blazers this season — played with intensity and had emphatic blocks, showing no effects from the hamstring strain that held him out of the final three preseason games.
“You know what, I forgot he had a hamstring injury,” Stotts said. “I think I was supposed to keep an eye on his minutes but I forgot all about it and it didn’t even occur to me.”