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2018 NBA Playoffs: Don’t count out New Orleans Pelicans against Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2

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Everyone’s remarking how the Blazers are set to improve. What about the Pelicans?

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Following the New Orleans Pelicans Game 1 victory, many went on to praise the team for their play, specifically certain individuals like Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, but the vast majority seemed rather confident that the Portland Trail Blazers will have a much better showing and take Game 2.

Is that the right take?

While no one should expect Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to repeat their one-for-fifteen first half shooting performance, I feel too many people are overlooking the fact that New Orleans will make several adjustments of their own. In turn, the Pelicans attack, defense and rebounding is just as likely to either maintain their stellar output or enjoy significant upticks in effectiveness.

Let’s start with the offense. The post-Boogie machine led the league in fast break points at 19.1 FBPS and came in as a close second in points in the paint at 55.6 PITP. While their 17 FBPS in Game 1 were in line with regular season production, their 44.0 PITP were not. In three of their four regular season meetings, the Pelicans tallied 56, 60 and 62 points in the paint. In the other game, they only scored 34 PITP, but Rondo didn’t play and Davis appeared in just five minutes, leaving that game early due to injury.

Moreover, all of the splendid ball movement that typified the third highest point average per team (112.6) was missing in Game 1. New Orleans averaged 306.2 passes per game during the regular season. In the opener against the Trail Blazers? A meek 259 passes. Ball movement is what leads to the Pelicans exploring secondary, third and fourth scoring options — utilizing the role players. For instance, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller, two deadly outside shooters, combined for a total of five shot attempts in 40 minutes of Game 1 action!

Defensively, the New Orleans Pelicans have done a good job of stymieing C.J. McCollum all season. Through five games, he’s averaging 17.8 points with a 35.8% field goal percentage. However, McCollum is far from alone with struggling to shoot against Pelican defenders. In four regular season games, the Trail Blazers combined to knock down just 31.2% of their three-point attempts. Is their Game 1 30.8 3PT% that much of an aberration — especially when you factor they were the coldest deep perimeter shooting team (29.6 3PT%) entering the postseason?

Barring injury (**knock on wood**), All-World defenders Holiday and Davis are going to continue to see enormous minutes. Mirotic, Moore and Rondo can be counted on to supply more excellent effort. So, can someone explain to me why Portland’s star studded backcourt won’t continue to struggle against a New Orleans defense that finished fifth in the league over their final 34 games?

Can Portland, a team that averaged 8.1 fast break points per game (30th), think they have any chance of matching their 29-FBPS effort of Game 1? In addition to all of those easy points in transition, New Orleans gave up 21 second chance points. Portland’s 15 offensive rebounds were an absolute thorn in the Pelicans’ side. While the Blazers have proven to be one of the best teams on the offensive glass, one has to expect the coaching staff to better prepare New Orleans.

Thanks to a swarming defense that placed extraordinary focus on Lillard and McCollum, especially in pick and roll actions, a lot of Pelicans were out of position once shots went up. If New Orleans can recognize they need to box-out the closest opponents instead of worrying about their original assignments and placing a higher priority on team rebounding — something Rondo did exquisitely well in the first three quarters, then the Pelicans could shore up quite a few of those rebounding woes.

One last point I’d like to make: the New Orleans Pelicans starting lineup entered the postseason as a buzzsaw, and by all appearances, they will remain one. In 21 regular season games, a Rondo-Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Davis lineup posted a +16.8 Net Rating. In Game 1, the fivesome posted a +33.7 Net Rating, outscoring the Trail Blazers by 15 points in 20 minutes!!! If the Pelicans reserves/role players are able to enjoy a little more success...

Hey, everything’s on the table for Game 2 between the Pelicans and Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard could start off hot and go for forty points. Jusuf Nurkic could summon that hidden beast. Portland could catch fire from the outside. However, just as likely in my opinion, the Pelicans could continue to surprise. There’s a lot of things that New Orleans could’ve done better in the opener that just might happen tonight in Game 2.