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Pelicans blaze a trail to Portland with playoff destiny in hand

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Now for the hard part.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go. The Pelicans had a number of goals this season. Finish at least .500 is now complete as they won their 41st game last night in Sacramento. Next up, making the playoffs. In their way? A daunting five game stretch featuring the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, and tonight's opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers. Also in the mix, a visit from the Phoenix Suns.

Those first four opponents listed also happen to be the four best teams in the Western Conference right now. Four of the five best teams in the entire NBA. New Orleans had to have their current four game winning streak (and help from Oklahoma City Thunder opponents) to get back into the race. Mission accomplished. Now this is the hard part, and NBA schedule makers found it in their hearts to make this the most miserable stretch all season long.

Hope the Pelicans got some rest on the plane.

Portland is dealing with a sudden avalanche of injuries. LaMarcus Aldridge is still playing with an injured hand that will likely require off-season surgery. Wesley Matthews went down with a torn achillies. The most recent victim? Three point specialist Dorell Wright who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken hand.

Keys to Victory

Keep Bombing Away: Since the All-Star break the Pelicans are shooting 40.7% behind the arc. As a teamThis is not a misprint. The load is being carried by Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter for the Pels as Anthony Davis is becoming more and more adept at finding spot up shooters in the corners from the top of the key. To pull out another win on the road New Orleans must stretch the Portland defense to the breaking point.

Make Damian Lillard Work: Guarding Lillard is going to be a challenge. The Pelican defense on the perimeter has been incredibly suspect since Jrue Holiday went down to injury. Point guards of all stripes are making hay whenever and where ever they choose. Pondexter will likely see the assignment first, with Eric Gordon, Norris Cole, and possibly even Toney Douglas getting a spell on Dame.

The key tonight is to make Lillard play both ends. He is going to hide away from Tyreke Evans on the ball. Quincy Pondexter needs to make him run through screens (Lillard is absolutely terrible navigating screens) and take advantage of the former rookie of the year napping off the ball. Gordon should do the same and not be hesitant to attack Lillard off the bounce, especially off of ball screens. Lillard cannot be allowed to play the game only one direction or New Orleans is doomed.

Four Quarters: The last time the Pelicans traveled to Portland was way back in November. They led comfortably going into the fourth quarter with the score 80-68. Then the wheels came off and they were outscored 34-13 to fall 102-93. New Orleans cannot deliver the kind of part time performance we have seen during this four game winning streak. Portland can make the Pels pay in ways the Kings, Timberwolves, and Lakers simply cannot.

MVP Performance: Anthony Davis needs to be up for this game. Way up. Thankfully he usually finds an extra gear when going against Aldridge. The past couple games odd matchups have turned Davis into more of a passer as teams blitz his catches at the top of the key. Portland is unlikely to continue that scheme, electing to defend much more straight up.

If the Pelicans want a win tonight and if Davis wants to be in the playoffs then he is going to need a huge, dominating game. Quick rotations on the weak side. Aggressively attacking the basket and any mismatches that might occur. The whole package is needed for New Orleans to turn four straight into five and move back into 8th in the West.

What: Pelicans at Trail Blazers

Where: Rose Garden

When: April 4th, 9:00 PM

How: Fox Sports New Orleans, NBA League Pass