PORTLAND — After playing more than 500 regular-season games together as teammates with the Portland Trail Blazers, guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum faced off for the first time Wednesday, more than a year after McCollum was traded to New Orleans. Pelicans in February 2022.
“At first, it was weird,” Lillard said after the 121-110 loss to New Orleans. “It felt like a little bit of practice, some of the matches.”
The year after the Blazers took Lillard No. 6 overall in 2012, they took McCollum with another lottery pick (No. 10). McCollum broke into the starting lineup for good in 2015-16, joining Lillard in the backcourt, and they teamed to lead Portland to playoff appearances each of the next five seasons, highlighted by a trip to the Western Conference finals 2019.
When McCollum made his first visit to Portland last March, Lillard was sidelined due to season-ending surgery to repair an abdominal injury. He also missed the Blazers’ Nov. 10 trip to New Orleans because of injury management, meaning it took some time for the two longtime teammates to play as opponents.
Like Lillard, McCollum compared the experience to playing against each other in games.
“Just like practice, just a longer game, a few more foul calls and fans there,” he said. “It’s nice to compete against your peers, your friends and people you respect and have worked with. That’s what the game is about. It’s about respecting the game, playing hard and giving it your all.”
To start the night, the Pelicans had McCollum guard the red-hot Lillard, who entered the game averaging 38.7 points over the previous 20 games.
“Obviously, this is a tough matchup,” McCollum said. “Knowing him as I know him, I wanted to make sure we set the tone early.”
Lillard joked that he knew McCollum’s full-court pressure against “wasn’t going to last.” Indeed, New Orleans later switched to defensive stoppers Herb Jones, Dyson Daniels and Jason Richardson against Lillard, depriving him of the basketball in an effort to force other Portland players to beat them.
That didn’t stop Lillard from scoring 41 points, his 13th 40+ game of the season. That pushed him past Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (12) for the most in a season by a player age 32 or older, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
However, it was McCollum and the Pelicans who emerged with an important victory in the battle for Western Conference play-in positions, snapping a four-game losing streak and moving 1.5 games ahead of the Blazers in the standings.
McCollum had 24 points and teamed with Brandon Ingram, who scored a season-high 40, to either score or assist on 29 of New Orleans’ 31 points in the fourth quarter.