NEW ORLEANS — CJ McCollum scored 23 points in 29 minutes against his former team and the New Orleans Pelicans moved closer to clinching a home play-in game with a 127-94 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.
Jonas Valanciunas, who returned from a sore right ankle, scored 14 points in 21 minutes for the Pelicans, who were without leading scorer Brandon Ingram (right hamstring), but wound up not needing any starters on the floor for as many as 30 minutes against a reeling Blazers team that had a patchwork lineup and lost its ninth straight.
“Our bench was great. They brought energy, pushed the pace,” McCollum said. “From top to bottom, this was a good team win. Now we’ve got to finish the season strong. Hopefully, we can take care of business and host the play-in game.”
The victory, combined with San Antonio’s loss at Minnesota, left New Orleans needing either one more victory or one more Spurs loss to lock up a home play-in game on Wednesday.
McCollum appeared to hurt his right hand, with which he shoots, when he we fouled and crashed to the floor in the third quarter. But after missing two free throws and a subsequent 3, he remained in game for nearly eight more minutes, hitting his fifth 3 of the game and a finger roll, before checking out for good.
Reserve center Willy Hernangomez had 17 points and 14 rebounds for New Orleans. Larry Nance Jr., sent from Portland to New Orleans as part of the trade that also brought McCollum to the Pelicans, scored 12 points, as did rookie Trey Murphy III.
Reserve guard and undrafted rookie Jose Alvarado had nine assists and four steals for the Pelicans, who led by 13 at halftime and by 25 after three and widened their lead from there.
Trail Blazers coach Chauncy Billups said he suspected his players could be getting “really fatigued” mentally as the season winds down.
“You see the finish line, the season is coming to an end. We’re not playing for the playoffs,” Billups said. “It’s just a natural thing that happens. So we have to, as a staff, do a better job of just getting them up to play.”
Drew Eubanks scored 20 points and CJ Elleby had 17 points for Portland, but the Blazers were sloppy with the ball and outworked around the basket. Portland committed 22 turnovers, leading to 36 Pelicans points. New Orleans also turned 23 offensive rebounds into 33 second-chance points and outrebounded the Blazers 49-27.
“We wanted to be active on our defense … try to cause havoc with deflections and steals,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “This triggers our offensive ability to get out and play in open court. I thought our guys did a really good job.”
McCollum had 15 points and Valanciunas 14 in the first half, when New Orleans led by as many as 15 points.
Trail Blazers: Reggie Perry scored 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting. … Former Pelicans Didi Louzada scored 11 points and went 3 of 4 from deep. … Josh Hart, who was part of the McCollum trade, did not play but received a loud ovation when shown on the video board above the court. Hart smiled, put his hand on his chest, stood and waved to the crowd. … Shot 52.2% (36 of 69), including 11 of 31 from 3-point range.
Pelicans: While Ingram was a late scratch with a recurring hamstring injury, Pelicans coach Willie Green downplayed the seriousness of the injury. “We just don’t want to risk putting him on the floor and he’s feeling sore,” Green said. “We don’t anticipate he’ll miss a play-in game or anything like that. He’s just not going tonight.” … Jaxson Hayes highlighted his 11-point night with several authoritative dunks. … Rookie Herb Jones had nine points and eight rebounds, highlight by his block of what looked like either a lob or long shot by Keon Johnson. Jones raced into the Portland back court to grab the loose ball and finished with a breakaway layup.
Green said before tipoff that Williamson, who has not played or even fully practiced this season as he recovers from an offseason foot injury, is now doing some “controlled” five-on-five work.
“He’s playing against the coaches and some of our guys will jump in,” Green explained. “He’s playing in a controlled scrimmage and that’s where he’s progressed to. Past that, there’s no update on him.”
The Pelicans have not officially ruled out Williamson for the season, but have not offered any indication that he’ll play any time soon, either. New Orleans has two regular season games left and must win two play-in games to advance to the NBA playoffs.
Trail Blazers visit Dallas on Friday night for their final road game of the season.