Fresh off six games in eight nights, the New Orleans Pelicans finally enjoyed a two-day window of rest before their next matchup, a date Tuesday night with the Portland Trail Blazers. Make no mistake, the 43-31 Pelicans need every bit of this win as they lock in with the Thunder (44-31), Spurs (43-31), Wolves (42-32), and Jazz (42-32), for the final stretch run in the Western Conference race.
Aside from two cupcakes in the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, the Pelicans face an onslaught of a schedule over the next two weeks, and they can’t afford to lose if they have any chance at hosting a playoff series.
Enter the third-seeded surging Portland Trail Blazers. Fresh off a 13-game win streak, the Blazers finally came back to earth with back-to-back losses late in the fourth against the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics before reconciling things against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Damian Lilliard has played himself into the MVP conversation with his blistering post ASG play. However, with a baby Dame on the way, a potential immediate flight out of town could remove the All-Star from availability in this matchup. News on this could update at any moment, but for now, he aims to team up with the fourth quarter monster in C.J. McCollum.
CJ has been a one man wrecking crew closing out games recently. While Dame is the engine that drives the train, CJ has been the conductor carefully guiding the locomotive into the station. With 14 fourth quarter points, CJ helped bury the Thunder, and he nearly carried the Blazers to victory against the Celtics.
If there is to be a weakness in the Blazer group, it’s been the New Orleans Pelicans, who have won two of three this season — including one without Anthony Davis. Jusurf Nurkic and Zach Collins have been impressive, but neither is capable of slowing down someone of AD’s ilk.
In addition, the Blazers bench has been struggling greatly of late. With Evan Turner dealing with back pain, the bench only collected eight points total in Sunday night’s match with the Thunder. The Pelicans bench will need to capitalize in the second and early fourth quarters when the Blazers red hot starters take a seat.
To do that, the Pelicans will have to have availability from Rajon Rondo (wrist) and Nikola Mirotic (hip). Rondo will likely struggle against the the quick-footed backcourt but can manage the offense that fell asleep against Houston. Mirotic will need to find his shot before the playoffs if the Pelicans have any chance of advancing.
Surprisingly, the Blazers hold the fifth best defense in the NBA and the 19th slowest pace. The Pels need to dictate the speed in this one at home.
Things to look for:
- How will Head Coach Alvin Gentry manage the minutes of Cheick Diallo, Emeka Okafor and Nikola Mirotic? Nurkic and Zach Collins have been electric offensively but have been turnstiles on the other end. Could this be a spot for Diallo’s energy, Okafor’s back taps, or Mirotic’s spacing?
- Will Harkless remain hot? Moe Harkless ranks in the top 15 in spot up threes from the corner this season after a slow start. Should he get looks tonight, you can bet it’ll translate to three points each time.
- How much energy will the Pelicans have? This one will have a playoff atmosphere, and the Pelicans will need to outwork the Blazers if they have any chance of winning.
For all of these details and a slew of answers for our mailbag questions, listen to the latest edition of our podcast featuring Editor in Chief Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel), BlazersEdge.com’s Steve Dewald! (@stevedhoops) and myself (@PrestonEllis)!