Jason Albert: New Orleans starting backcourt
Whether the Pelicans advance or not isn’t going to depend on how well Anthony Davis plays — barring he has an unlikely meltdown. It is going to come down to if Jrue Holiday can continue to perform like the All-NBA defensive first team guard he has been all season, and if Playoff Rondo can help contain Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If the guards can hold Lillard and McCollum in check and not allow too many more points to their counterparts, then the Pelicans frontcourt should be able to seize their advantages and carry New Orleans into the second round.
Kevin Barrios: Cheick Diallo
As I’ve already said in our first roundtable, Alvin Gentry wants to play small and run. Mirotic has been great paired with Anthony Davis in the front court, but he gives up size to Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Ed Davis. He is also out-athlete-ed by Al-Farouq Aminu. Over the last 15 games, Portland is 4th in the league on the offensive glass and in offensive rebound percentage. Diallo can offset that while providing the athleticism and quickness to play at Gentry’s desired space. I wouldn’t expect to see much of Emeka Okafor, if at all, but I could see Cheick impacting this series.
Chris Conner: Nikola Mirotic
I didn’t notice what he could turn the team into when playing well, but his scoring, rebounding and underrated defense, make a significant difference. When the Blazers and Pels squared off in March, Niko simply couldn’t stay on the floor. He was a liability at the time, finishing that game with two points and four rebounds.
A confident Niko gives NOLA a deadly third option, taking lots of pressure off of Jrue and AD. Most importantly, the Pels need another big man to play sturdy. Giving up offensive boards have been a problem as evidenced in the regular season against Portland. Mirotic’s involvement goes far beyond than just knocking down a few open jumpers.
Preston Ellis: Adversity/Nikola Mirotic
The Pelicans have dealt with it all season long. From injuries to Rondo, Jackson, Hill, Ajinca, Asik, Allen to Boogie’s catastrophic injury on possibly the biggest Pelicans’ victory in eight years, to Tom Benson’s death, AD’s national media storylines, the list goes on and on.
The Pelicans keep responding.
Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis have been receiving playoff minutes all season long. The big stage supposedly will bring out the best of Rajon Rondo. And there is absolutely no pressure on the Pelicans now, instead it’s all on the third-seeded Blazers.
Portland has for the most part enjoyed the best health in the entire Western Conference. They haven’t hit a rough patch all season. They haven’t been directly challenged in the way that the Pelicans have. When the adversity hits, and they fall in the Moda Center, how will they respond?
If we’re talking players, I think it’s Nikola Mirotic. He’s been electric in his new starting role at the five and has done an admirable job of matching up with LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and others in small sample sizes.
With second units involving Jrue, Clark, Miller and Hill, Mirotic may be forced to fight with Ed Davis. Against Nurkic, he will need to use his body and instincts to help on cutting backcourt scorers, but above all he will need to focus on fundamentals. Jusuf Nurkic capitalizes on defenders who lapse mentally, or take risks to chase blocks and steals. He will attack the boards on every possession and use his footwork to slither into underhanded shots at the rim.
If Mirotic can continue producing offensively, lock up the glass on the defensive side of the floor, and mitigate much of Jusurf Nurkic’s effect, it will put that much more pressure on Dame and CJ.
David Fisher: Role players not collapsing under the glare of playoff basketball
Nikola Mirotic, Darius Miller, and Cheick Diallo are going to carry the day if the Pelicans are to pull this one out. Timely shooting, especially on the road, is critical. Miller and Mirotic cannot, CANNOT, be passive spot-up shooters alone. They must be willing to attack closeouts early and often enough to change Portland’s approach and punish the Trail Blazers expected conservative defensive principles.
Zachary Junda: Rajon Rondo
Or, rather his alter-ego: Playoff Rondo.
The Pelicans are about to deal with one of the best backcourts in the entire NBA so Rajon Rondo has to make his presence felt. Chances are the Pelicans won’t be able to stop Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum from getting theirs every single night. And that’s fine! I don’t expect the Trail Blazers to stop Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis either. Rondo’s the variable in this equation and he has to at least somewhat balance out Portland’s dynamic pair.
Oleh Kosel: Nikola Mirotic
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis will do what they’ve done all season and that’s dominate the action on the floor. They’re both so versatile, possessing the ability to do so many different things, that one doesn’t worry about a sudden cold-shooting spell rendering them ineffective on the court. With so much now riding on the line as each and every playoff minute is so crucial, Rajon Rondo is going to remain a constant difference maker, too. Hey, he didn’t earn the nicknames of Playoff Rondo and TNT Rondo without thriving in the brightest of lights! No, the biggest potential X-Factor in my opinion will be Mirotic.
While Niko obviously smashed through the prison walls of a long shooting slump, his recent good play has been just that — recent. How will he react mentally if/when he suffers through a really poor shooting quarter, half, or gulp, game? That was a really long bad stretch.
My expectation is that he’ll be fine, relying on his latest string of solid performances to carry him through any rough patches. Teammates and coaches will remain supportive, and of course, we should expect Rondo to get him going, when need be, with a few easy looks. Plus, Mirotic possesses an aggressive mentality, one that’s apt to keep at it even if things aren’t going his way.
If New Orleans gets that confident Mirotic for the entirety of the series against Portland, I really love the Pelicans chances for advancing to the second round.
Trevor Ritchie: Jrue Holiday
As I outlined in my prediction of the series, Holiday’s all-defensive team caliber tenacity will need to be in full effect against the Portland tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He will be expected to shut one of them down to limit their offense, as well as becoming a dominant second-scoring option considering neither Lillard nor McCollum are outstanding defenders. Not only that, but this is the playoffs. We’ve seen throughout the season how clutch Jrue Holiday can be when he’s aggressive on both ends with a close game winding down — performances he may have to recreated in the series. His success will ultimate determine the Pelicans fate — and this is where he earns that $125M contract, exactly where it matters.
Frank Spiro: Ian Clark
I think a lot of people will say that our X-Factor for these playoffs is Rajon Rondo, and for good reason; when playoff time rolls around, Rondo goes into a different mode, where he starts calling out the other teams plays, and lobbing up nearly impossible alley oops.
With that being said, there is no player more important to the Pelicans success than Ian Clark. Clark has become the leader of our second unit, setting a pace and tone for the offense without Davis on the floor. Bench scoring is an area the Pelicans struggled with often throughout the season, as the reserves averaged only 27.9 points per game, good for 26th in NBA... just one slot ahead of the Trailblazers in 27th.
Both teams have superstars leading them. The real question is which bench will be able to outplay the other. If it’s ours, it will be because of Clark.
Travis Tate: E’Twaun Moore
The biggest X-Factor in a series win might be an unheralded shooter who can get loose balls and maintain possession. How about E’Twaun Moore? If he shoots lights out and is around the ball in his floor game, the guard from Purdue might make an important impact!