PORTLAND — After playing more than 500 regular-season games together as teammates with the Portland Trail Blazers, guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum squared off against each other for the first time Wednesday, more than a year after McCollum was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in February 2022.
“At first, it was weird,” Lillard said after the 121-110 loss to New Orleans. “It felt like practice a little bit, a couple of the matchups.”
The year after the Blazers drafted Lillard No. 6 overall in 2012, they took McCollum with another lottery pick (No. 10). McCollum moved 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 2019 Western Conference finals.
When McCollum made his first visit back to Portland last March, Lillard was sidelined by 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 a while for the two longtime teammates to play as opponents.
Like Lillard, McCollum compared the experience to playing against each other in scrimmages.
“Just like practice, only a longer game, a couple more foul calls and fans there,” he said. “It’s cool to compete against your peers and your friends and people that you respect and you worked with. That’s what the game is about. It’s about respecting the game, playing hard and giving all you’ve got.”
To begin the night, the Pelicans had McCollum guarding the red-hot Lillard, who entered the game averaging 38.7 points over the previous 20 games.
“Obviously, that’s a tough matchup,” McCollum said. “Me knowing him the way 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 Herbert Jones, Dyson Daniels and Josh Richardson against Lillard, denying him the basketball in an effort to force other Portland players to beat them.
That didn’t stop Lillard from scoring 41 points, his 13th time this season with 40-plus. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, that pushed him past Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (12) for the most ever in a single season by a player age 32 or older.
Still, it was McCollum and the Pelicans who emerged with a key victory in the battle for spots in the Western Conference play-in, 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.