Game Preview: Pelicans at Trail Blazers

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Tonight, the Pelicans will play in Portland and face one of, if not the biggest, surprises of the season. After a record of 33-49 a year ago, the Trail Blazers are off to a scorching 22-5 start. That's a win percentage jump of 40.2% to 81.5%! And surprisingly, their top 4 players in minutes played are the same foursome from last year. So what's been the magical elixir responsible for the massive turnaround?

Well, a lot of things actually.

To start, their core has improved individually in a number of areas. Last year's rookie of the year, Damian Lillard, is enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign, mainly due to dramatic improvement in his offensive efficiency. Wesley Matthews has forgotten how to miss -- shooting an astounding (and probably unsustainable) 64.5 TS%. Nicolas Batum has improved largely across the board as he's a year closer to his prime. And LaMarcus Aldridge has become an absolute beast on the boards -- 4th in total defensive rebounds, behind only Kevin Love, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan.

Next, Portland brought in Robin Lopez and, to probably the surprise of a number of local fans, he has really solidified Portland's interior. It was a given the defense at the rim was going to improve upon replacing a J.J. Hickson, but Lopez has more than admirably filled a number of other responsibilities: efficient offensive production, adequate rebounding (first time in history a Lopez brother is averaging a per-36 of 10 rebounds) and handling the dirty work in the paint.

Lastly, Portland's bench isn't the laughing stock of the league anymore. No seriously, their 2012-13 reserves averaged only 18.5 PPG, on a tick under 40% from the field, under 30% from 3-point range and under 70% from the line. With the help of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson they now average 24.1 PPG on 42.2 FG%, 37.5 3FG% and 76.8 FT%.

So, to sum up, the Pelicans are going to have one heck of a time leaving the Moda Center (yeah I miss the Rose Garden Arena too) with a victory. Basically, we're going to have to treat the matchup like a playoff game, where the entire team raises their level of play across the board. It's going to be absolutely vital Jrue Holiday corrals Lillard, to some degree, and Anthony Davis doesn't get into quick foul trouble against Aldridge. If both of these wishes come to fruition, a competitive ballgame shouldn't be out of the question...I hope.

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