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2018 NBA Playoffs: New Orleans Pelicans vs Portland Trail Blazers series preview and keys to victory

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In-depth look at everything leading up to Game 1 of the NOP-POR first round series.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In less than 24 hours, the New Orleans Pelicans (48-34) will do battle against the Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) in Game 1 of the matchup between the three and six seeds in the Western Conference. For New Orleans, the contest will represent their first playoff appearance in three years, meanwhile Portland is all set to enjoy their fifth straight trip.

Damian Lillard, who just wrapped up his sixth season, has missed the big dance just once — during his rookie campaign. Anthony Davis, who happened to be the runner-up to Lillard’s 2012 Rookie of the Year Award, hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. His lone playoff trip came in 2015 and it was unceremoniously short-lived, with the Golden State Warriors sweeping the first four games out from under the Pelicans.

Don’t blame AD for that quick exit though. After a breakout 24 and 10 season, Davis went on to average 31.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks against the eventual 2015 World Champions. Davis was unstoppable, but unfortunately for him, he failed to receive enough support from his teammates.

This time round, that shouldn’t be the case.

After averaging a meager 99.4 points per game three years ago, this current batch of Pelicans averaged a league third-best 111.7 points per game for the 2017-18 season and upped it to 114.7 over the final 28 games. After losing DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans successfully increased the pace, and thus their scoring output, without sacrificing the defense — in fact, they made significant strides on that end.

W/L Record Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating Pace
Boogie era (First 48 gms) 27-21 108.3 (6) 106.9 (21) +1.4 (10) 101.48 (6)
Post-Boogie depression (Next 6 games) 1-5 98.6 (27) 107.9 (18) -9.3 (27) 104.50 (1)
Small-ball galore (Final 28 games) 20-8 108.6 (12) 102.8 (4) +5.8 (5) 104.5 (1)

How did the Pelicans make a transformation in the middle of the season, while losing an All-NBA caliber contributor, and go on to finish the season playing their best basketball? Praise the coaching staff for making the proper adjustments and the roster for stepping up their games and executing the new plan!

  • Anthony Davis played like a man possessed after the loss of his bruising sidekick, averaging a ridiculous stat line of 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 3.2 blocks. After leading the Pelicans to a 10-game winning streak, he concluded the season by fighting through two painful ankle injuries to ultimately push New Orleans into the playoffs.
  • Jrue Holiday just put the finishing touches on his most effective campaign to date, averaging 19 points and six assists and shutting down assignment after assignment on the other end of the floor. He is widely expected to earn a place on one of the two 2018 All-NBA defensive teams, but it would help if he carries over his regular season exploits and noticeably affects the play of either Lillard or McCollum.
  • Nikola Mirotic, after the worst of shooting slumps, is entering the postseason on fire. Over his final six games, he averaged 22.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.3 three-pointers, giving New Orleans a legitimate Big Three and a starting lineup that ripped apart opponents down the stretch.
  • After suffering through a roller coaster start to his New Orleans career, Rajon Rondo has been a new man since Niko arrived in town. Since February 10th, Rondo is averaging 10.1 points, 9.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals, but he’s been even more special of late, posting a 12-point, 17-assist effort against the Warriors and a 19-point, 14-assist performance in the season finale against the Spurs. Playoff Rondo looks to be locked and loaded.
  • E’Twaun Moore appeared in all 82 games, started 80 of them and averaged a career-best 12.5 points. His three-point conversion rate finished above 40% for the second time in his career (42.5%) and he’s been as reliable of a fourth scorer as you’ll find.
NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the starters, expect Ian Clark, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill to probably round out the initial playoff rotation. Clark has been the hottest of the group, Hill the coldest, but if Gentry looks to a ninth player, Cheick Diallo would instantly become the most tantalizing reserve. His energy is infectious and perfect for those sudden momentum reversals; however, he’s had trouble with consistency all season. If anyone should falter, Emeka Okafor, Jordan Crawford and DeAndre Liggins lie in wait, too.

The Trail Blazers are led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Expect to see their numbers called early and often as the duo accounted for over 48 points per game this season. The only other Portland rotation player to average double-figures in scoring was center Jusuf Nurkic, at 14.3 points per game. Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis should round out the rest of their playoff rotation.

One name missing from this group — for the time being — is Maurice Harkless as he’s still recovering from recent knee surgery. His status remains up in the air, but there are rumors circulating he may return sometime during the middle of this series. Don’t scoff, he emerged as an important two-way contributor during their season-long 13-game winning streak.

While Portland leans heavily on their backcourt scoring, they’re dependent on creating additional opportunities by attacking the offensive glass. In the last regular season matchup between the two teams, the Blazers converted 17 offensive rebounds into 27 second chance points. Additionally, the Trail Blazers do a good job defensively, limiting points in the paint and holding opponents to the fourth lowest FG% in the league at 44.7%.

Although New Orleans and Portland played each other four times in the regular season, it’s difficult to read too much into the results. Cousins appeared in the first three, Davis missed all but five minutes of the first contest, and Rondo sat out the most recent meeting on March 27th.

Honestly, though, I think this fact may play a little into New Orleans hands. Portland is yet to face a small-ball Pelicans team looking to push the issue under the guidance of a throwback floor general. They’re yet to cover a hot-shooting Mirotic while also trying to account for Davis roaming the paint area.

Despite no Rondo, New Orleans was up nine points on the Trail Blazers less than three weeks ago, but a bad ankle sprain derailed Davis’ impact, and in turn, the Pelicans hopes for a win. These constraints will not exist Saturday evening. Portland will be without Harkless, and they’ll have to contend with a Pelicans team who arguably had the strongest regular season finish outside of the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.

Three Keys to Victory

ESPN
  • Slow down Nurkic. When Cousins was around, Nurkic had trouble with consistently making an impact. With Davis and Okafor in his stead, Jusuf went off for 21 points on 10-14 shooting in the teams’ last meeting. One expects Lillard and McCollum to get theirs regardless of the number of shots so preventing Nurkic from getting this many looks in close again needs to be a priority.
  • Gang rebound. As mentioned, the Trail Blazers are incredibly adept on the offensive glass. New Orleans preferred lineup of Rondo-Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Davis has excelled in a lot of areas (+16.8 Net Rating), but they’ve struggled at corralling defensive rebounds on a consistent basis. It will be absolutely paramount for all five Pelicans players to box out neighboring bodies and gang rebound in order to prevent Lillard and McCollum from getting second chances.
  • Playoff Rondo. During the final 28 games, Rondo has been a significant difference maker. When he contributed across the board, the Pelicans walked away the winners.
Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Steals FG%
Rondo in wins 10.7 5.3 10.6 2.6 1.4 49.5%
Rondo in losses 7.8 4.0 6.8 3.4 0.8 44.1%

Geaux Pels!

What: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers

Where: Moda Center

When: 9:30 pm Central

How: ESPN, Fox Sports New Orleans, 99.5 FM WRNO

Opponent Blog: Blazer’s Edge