The New Orleans Pelicans (43-31) have eight more games left on the schedule, but Tuesday’s night matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers (45-28) is undoubtedly one of the most important hurdles remaining.
Currently, the third-seeded Blazers sit ahead of the Pelicans by two games in the loss column, but tacking on another defeat would make it one and New Orleans would own the tiebreaker. If the Pelicans want to keep legitimate hopes alive for home court advantage in the first round, they really need to beat the Blazers and the Thunder during their meetings this week.
Of course, it won’t be easy.
Damian Lillard, Portland’s undisputed leader, has been a buzzsaw. Since the start of February, he is averaging 29.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 3.4 three-pointers. But, like Anthony Davis in New Orleans, the All-Star point guard had help over this period to propel the Blazers to 16 wins in their last 22 games.
- C.J. McCollum: 21.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 three-pointers
- Jusuf Nurkic: 14.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 blocks
- Maurice Harkless: 9.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals and a 51.9 3PT%
As a team, the Blazers offense has been firing on nearly all cylinders since the start of the new year. Prior to the calendar changing to 2018, Portland’s offensive rating (102.1) ranked 27th in the league. Since? It’s hummed to the tune of a 110.6 ORtg, good for sixth in the association. Their defense, which was fourth best in 2017, has only mildly slipped, down to 14th since January 1st.
Add it all up and Portland has been a much more effective team over the last three months. It’ll likely take a better effort by New Orleans to emerge with a victory than what we witnessed earlier in the season.
Three Keys to Victory
Bench Domination. If there’s one area New Orleans has a distinct advantage, it’s in the depth department. Since DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the year on January 26, the Pelicans bench has really stepped up, ranking 14th in points per game and ninth in field goal percentage. Conversely, the Blazers rank at the very bottom in points per game and next to last in FG%. It will be important for Cheick Diallo, Nikola Mirotic (if he’s a go), Ian Clark and Darius Miller to continue their solid play and help take a lot of pressure off the starters.
Chase them off the three-point line. With Lillard and McCollum on the floor, this one’s a given but nevertheless important to see through. The Trail Blazers shoot more three-pointers and with greater proficiency in wins so it would be a death blow to see their role players like Zach Collins, Al-Farouq Aminu, Shabazz Napier and Harkless knock down a fair share of attempts from deep.
Push pace to offset Blazers length. Against teams that have a distinct size advantage on the wings, the Pelicans often struggle. Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler. Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles. While Jrue Holiday has the chops to give any foe a difficult time, Rajon Rondo (who is also questionable) and E’Twaun Moore have been picked on exclusively by larger human beings. The only way for New Orleans to thwart this is to create a chaotic environment and have both teams spend more time in transition.
What: New Orleans Pelicans vs Portland Trail Blazers
Where: Smoothie King Center
When: March 27, 2018, 7:00 p.m. Central
How: FSNO, WRNO 99.5 FM