Anthony Davis never came out of the locker room after halftime.
After scoring 19 first-half points, Davis hung back while the rest of the Pelicans retook the floor as New Orleans’ comeback attempt was stifled in a 117-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night at the Smoothie King Center.
Minutes into the third quarter, the team announced Davis had suffered a left knee injury and was doubtful to return. He never reappeared on the court.
It was the fifth time Davis had been forced to exit a game early with an injury this season, and the Pelicans dropped to 1-4 in those games.
Unlike previous circumstances, Davis didn’t appear to be in severe, obvious pain. A collision with Blazers guard C.J. McCollum late in the second quarter appeared to be the issue that spurred the injury, but it didn’t immediately remove Davis from the game.
Instead, Davis finished the first half but simply never came back.
“Basically it’s just a sore left knee,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “There’s no reason for us to take any kind of chances with him right now. That’s why we just held him out. I didn’t think it made sense to stick him back out there to play in the situation we are in right now.
“Obviously, if there was a bigger bounty out there for winning the game, we may have considered it. But we didn’t consider it. So we’ll just have to wait and see and get it looked at and go from there.”
Davis’ absence took a toll on the closest thing the Pelicans have come to continuity in weeks. New Orleans used the same starting lineup in consecutive games, temporarily halting its NBA lead in the category at 33 combinations this year.
Still, the scant traces of familiarity failed to breed much early success as the Pelicans returned home from a five-game road trip and posted a shoddy opening half.
It was the Pelicans’ fifth loss in their past six games and ninth in their past 11. The defeat keeps New Orleans in sole possession of the sixth-worst record in the league with 14 games remaining.
The Blazers won the season series 3-1 and remained firmly in the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. Portland leaned on star point guard Damian Lillard, who scored a game-high 33 points, including two critical free throws in the final minute after finding McCollum on the wing for a crucial 3-pointer a possession earlier.
It allowed the Blazers to stave off an urgent Pelicans run in which they nearly turned what appeared to be a blowout into a victory.
Even with Davis in the locker room, the Pelicans made a fourth-quarter push, methodically slicing a double-digit deficit before a Jrue Holiday 3-pointer thrust New Orleans into the lead with 3 minutes, 15 seconds remaining.
Holiday and Ryan Anderson each scored a team-high 30 points, combining for 38 in the second half.
“With A.D. out, I do try to look to score a little bit more, which I have (assistant coach Robert) Pack telling me that all of the time,” Holiday said. “Coming down the stretch, with Anthony out, who is our go-to guy, and they were all over Ryan toward the end of the game, so I decided I had to make something happen.”
Despite Holiday’s scoring flourish, the Pelicans couldn’t hang on to their late lead. But the problems stemmed back to the opening half.
Portland wasted no time distinguishing the difference between a contender and a team playing out the string. Even with Davis in for eight minutes, it took just 16 minutes for the Blazers to tally 50 points as they repeatedly attacked the rim without obstruction.
The lead ballooned to as much as 58-38 midway through the second quarter. Portland had out-rebounded the Davis-led Pelicans 27-11 at halftime.
Still, the Pelicans showed an ability to climb back into contention against a playoff team. They just didn’t have enough to finish them off.
Before the game, Gentry said it’s critical to improve the Pelicans into one of the five fastest teams in the league next year, and he believes the shift into that mindset begins in the season’s final month, even while using an array of spare parts.
Getting Holiday, in particular, to crank up the pace is one of Gentry’s highest priorities, and he has seen results over the past three weeks. New Orleans has scored at least 100 points in eight straight games, and Gentry said he was pleased with his team’s tempo.
Considering the Pelicans entered the game 0-30 when failing to register triple digits, the boost in pace was less of a wish and more of a requirement.
“We are trying to understand that the pace of the game will be very important next year,” Gentry said. “Then we also need to cut down on turnovers. Those two things will be very important. Then we just want to put the ball in players’ hands in certain situations and see how they react.”