PORTLAND — Anthony Davis stole the show and the New Orleans Pelicans stole home-court advantage from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Davis had 35 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo won the backcourt battle, and the Pelicans held on for a 97-95 victory on Saturday night in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series.
Holiday added 21 points, outplaying both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and had a big blocked shot in the closing seconds as New Orleans escaped after Portland erased almost all of a 19-point deficit.
“It’s the playoffs,” Holiday said of his final block. “A lot of excitement and a lot of energy especially in the building. Obviously, that was a really big stop and at that moment it felt good to get a stop. It felt good to know that all the hard work we put in this game, we got the win, so we did a really good job at that.”
Rondo finished with 17 assists, eight rebounds and six points.
Portland made a charge that cut it to 93-92 on McCollum’s 3-pointer just inside a minute left. Lillard missed in the lane with 15 seconds remaining with the Blazers still down one, and after Davis made two free throws, Holiday blocked Pat Connaughton’s layup with 6.3 seconds to go.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts and several players said that the play was designed for a 3-pointer, but the Pelicans successfully took those options away.
Perhaps that had something to do with Rondo knowing everything the Blazers were ready to throw at them and relaying that knowledge to his teammates.
“He’s in a different mindset,” Davis said. “He was up all night watching film. When they were calling plays out there he was telling us what it was in our version before they had a chance to run it. He’s definitely locked in. The way he played tonight with 17 assists, he’s just in a different mode for the playoffs.”
Lillard finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while McCollum had 19 points.
The sixth-seeded Pelicans were the only road team to win on the opening day of the NBA playoffs. Nikola Mirotic had 16 points, 11 rebounds and also blocked four shots to help Davis earn the first victory of his playoff career.
It looked like it would come easily, as the Pelicans extended a nine-point halftime lead to 69-50 on Holiday’s dunk with 4:25 left in the third quarter. It still seemed safe when Davis threw down a thunderous alley-oop slam from Rondo with 6:09 to play, letting out a scream as Portland took an 86-72 lead.
Portland’s rally came up short, but the Blazers vow to do better in Game 2 with regards to going after Davis.
“Getting to the basket, he’s around,” McCollum said. “You know, he blocked my shot in the first quarter, maybe made some contact. But he’s always there, he’s always around roaming. But there’s no excuses. We got to play better.”
Portland’s two stars finished with just three combined free-throw attempts. McCollum says it’s on them to force the issue.
“Maybe we need to be more aggressive getting downhill,” McCollum said. “You’ve got to figure out how the referees are reffing the game and go from there.”
Pelicans: New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry is a believer in “Playoff Rondo,” the idea of Rondo elevating his game in the postseason. “I think there is a sense of confidence that he has, especially this time of the year,” Gentry said. “He’s a really bright player. One of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around. I’ve obviously had the opportunity to coach Steph (Curry), Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Grant Hill. When you start talking about the extremely smart players, he’s one of those guys. I also think he has a way of giving confidence to the other guys. He makes them believe in themselves.”
Gentry says he relishes having someone who can lead the team in the way Rondo can. “I know it’s like an old cliché, but it really is like having an extra assistant coach.”
Trail Blazers: Among the challenges for the Blazers in this first-round series, none ranks higher than defending Davis. Terry Stotts said that he would begin the series with Jusuf Nurkic, who did not see much time on Davis in the regular season, on the All-Star big man.
Nurkic played 24 minutes, finishing with 11 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.
In a surprise, rookie Zach Collins played 22 minutes off the Blazers bench, up from his regular- season average of 16 minutes per game.
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Portland.