CJ McCollum didn’t play in the New Orleans Pelicans’ first matchup of the season against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nearly a month later, McCollum enters the second game of the season between the teams, Friday in Oklahoma City, on a hot streak.
McCollum struggled in early December upon his return from missing four games due to COVID-19 protocol. He averaged 6.7 points, 4.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 24.2 percent in his first three games back.
However, he has come on strong of late. In his past five games, McCollum is averaging 31.5 points, 7.5 assists and six rebounds while shooting 49.5 percent.
“For me, it’s just about being consistent,” McCollum said. “My work ethic is always the same. I finally feel good post-COVID.”
In the Pelicans’ 126-117 win over the visiting San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, McCollum scored a season-high 40 points on 14-of-27 shooting, contributing seven 3-pointers, nine assists and eight rebounds. McCollum scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to help the Pelicans snap a four-game losing streak.
New Orleans particularly needed McCollum against the Spurs — and likely will against the Thunder — as Zion Williamson missed the Thursday game after entering COVID protocol. He figures to be unavailable in Oklahoma City.
In the first meeting of the season between the teams, Williamson converted a three-point play in the final minute and finished with 23 points and eight assists to lift the Pelicans to a 105-101 victory without McCollum and Brandon Ingram.
Ingram remains out, having missed the past 12 games due to a toe injury.
Last season, New Orleans was 7-20 when neither Williamson nor Ingram played. So far this season, the Pelicans are 2-1 without the duo.
The Thunder come into Friday’s game on a three-game winning streak, having beaten Portland 101-98 with a late flurry on Wednesday to sweep back-to-back games against the Trail Blazers.
A big reason for Oklahoma City’s recent success has been the defensive performance of Luguentz Dort.
In the closing seconds Wednesday, Dort fought through a screen, then stayed stuck on Damian Lillard, who missed a potential go-ahead shot.
“Lu is Lu,” Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He brings that every night.”
Dort developed a reputation as a strong defender quickly when he entered the league four seasons ago. This season, though, he has been much more consistent.
“The guy is just a monster defensively,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.
Though that consistency has yet to find its way to the offensive side, Dort is displaying a defensive tenacity that has made him a central piece in the Thunder’s rebuild.
“He’s got a long way to go, just like everybody else, especially offensively — I know a lot’s been made of that,” Daigneault said. “But when the fight breaks out, he’s there for the fight.”
Friday’s game is the sixth in a season-high, seven-game homestand for Oklahoma City, while it’s the lone road game in a six-game stretch for the Pelicans.
After missing three games due to non-COVID illness, Darius Bazley was available for the Thunder on Wednesday, though he didn’t play. He was not listed on the injury report for the Friday game.
–Field Level Media