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NBA Preview: Can Pelicans rediscover last season’s defensive identity against Trail Blazers?

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New Orleans is on fire offensively, but can they they do enough defensively to stop the NBA’s 9th-best offense?

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

Don’t look now, but the New Orleans Pelicans are rapidly sliding out of the playoff picture.

Though they’ve won four of their previous six contests, the competition continues to separate. The Utah Jazz (winners of seven of eight) join the Clippers with an ever-widening 3.5 game advantage.

Offensively, the Pelicans have become a blazing inferno behind Elfrid Payton (125 points per game over last eight). But using a sledgehammer to crack the nut has yet to reap any benefits when teams continue to thrive on the other end. The Pelicans rank third-to-last in points allowed, 25th in fastbreak points allowed and 29th in three-point shots allowed. Most puzzling of all, perhaps, the Pelicans are allowing opponent’s 11 offensive rebounds per game (22nd).

It won’t matter how good New Orleans offense has become because their defense has been equally inept and the schedule makers offer no reprieve. The Pels travel to Portland to take on their old friends, the 27-19 Portland Trailblazers.

Last summer’s 4-0 sweep seems a lifetime ago, as the Pelicans have faced enough tribulations in 2018/19 to lose the taste of success they enjoyed last April.

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

But maybe they’ll find that lovin’ feeling again in the familiar Moda Center. Though the Blazers enjoyed a 132-119 victory over the Pelicans on November 1st, they did so without Pelicans’ MVP Anthony Davis as well as Elfrid Payton. They led a balanced attack, but the true difference was with the deep ball, where the Blazers finished 18-35 (51%).

Even with the Pelicans recent run of health, they’ll be facing a Blazers’ team that has won their last five home games and 19 of 26 on the season. The Pelicans, on the other hand, sit at 6-18 on the road (yikes!).

Portland’s ninth-best offense does it in the half court with the NBA’s 18th-rated pace. They do well on the boards (8th) from the three-point line (9th), and at the free-throw stripe (9th).

But they do have their share of warts, and those come on the defensive end. The Blazers are second-to-last in turnovers, second-to-last in defending the three, and 20th in transition defense.

Damian Lillard is enjoying another All-Star season with 26 points, six assists, and 4.4 rebounds and his sidekick C.J. McCollum has done his part with another 20 points per game.

Jake Layman and Zach Collins have been bright spots, especially from range where the two average 35%.

Jusurf Nurkic is a walking double-double (15/10), all the while leading the Blazers in plus/minus at +4. However, if the Pelicans are to allow the deep ball, they’d do well to allow Nurkic his choice of looks (12.5%), or bench commander, Evan Turner (17%).

They keys to the game would be defending the three and locking up the boards, but isn’t that the same story every night?

Instead, I challenge the Pelicans to do something they failed to do in excruciating fashion Wednesday:

Matchup in transition.

For every decision made in transition defense, shout, don’t point. Don’t raise your finger, turn your head and use your words. The Pelicans inability to matchup in transition even following a converted basket or free throw is downright mystifying. Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton were particularly egregious in their missed rotations, but the team as a whole suffers from the same inability.

Offensively, we know what to expect from this group. They’ve averaged 125 points per game over their last eight. Outscoring the opposition is always the battle plan, but to defeat the Blazers, they’ll have to execute on both ends.

A bit of this would help:

Let’s geaux, Pels!

Portland New Orleans
Pace: 98.9 (18th) Pace: 102.3 (6th)
ORtg: 112.4 (9th) ORtg: 114.9 (3rd)
DRtg: 110.3 (15th) DRtg: 112.9 (25th)
Projected Starters:
Portland New Orleans
PG - Damian Lillard PG - Elfrid Payton
SG - CJ McCollum SG - Jrue Holiday
SF - Jake Layman F - E'Twaun Moore
F - Al Farouq-Aminu PF - Julius Randle
C - Jusurf Nurkic C - Anthony Davis
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Where To Watch

What: New Orleans Pelicans (21-24) at Portland Trailblazers (27-19)

Where: Moda Center, Portland, OR

When: Friday, January 18, 2018, 9:30 p.m. Central

How: FSNO, NSNW 99.5 FM WRNO