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Pelicans welcoming hot Trail Blazers squad, but they wield unstoppable force in Zion

Damian Lillard is special, yet so too is Williamson

New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Pelicans will kick off a four-game home stand tonight against the Trail Blazers. Although New Orleans has played well at home (7-5) this season, Portland is arriving with a 9-5 away record in tow and they’re particularly scorching at the moment overall, having won seven of their last eight games.

So, do the Pelicans have a reasonable chance of knocking off a team currently occupying the fourth seed in the Western Conference? I would argue yes.

Although Portland sits five games ahead in the standings, their average point differential (+0.6) is just slightly better than New Orleans’ +0.2 mark. Why am I fixated on this precise statistic? Because a team’s point differential is a better predictor of future success than winning percentages.

Half of the Pelicans’ 12 wins on the season have been by more than 10 points and three of them have come in their last eight games. Similarly, seven of the Trail Blazers’ 17 victories have been by more than 10 points and four of those have occurred in their last eight games. Despite noticeably different winning percentages over this stretch (POR: 87.5% vs NOP: 62.5%), less than a point separates the two team’s point differentials (POR: +7.8 vs NOP: +6.9).

The main takeaway should be that both teams have been playing well ahead of Wednesday’s contest so it may be more up for grabs than many believe.

Another reason for hope that New Orleans could emerge the victor? Zion Williamson is impacting the game as positively as anybody in the league right now. Have a look at how his stats compare to Damian Lillard’s in February.

Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Steals Blocks TS% +/-
Zion Williamson 26.0 5.4 4.4 1.9 1.0 1.1 72.9% +6.7
Damian Lillard 28.6 3.6 7.9 3.0 1.5 0.3 59.2% +4.3

Thanks to Williamson’s dominant accomplishments, the Pelicans are scoring the third most points (121.8 PPG) and shooting the ball well from everywhere on the floor (50.6 FG% / 40.6 3PT% / 78.0 FT%) this month.

New Orleans will likely need another impressive offensive team performance against the Trail Blazers. For as well as the offense is humming in February (124.4 offensive rating — 1st), the defense has plenty of room for improvement (119.6 defensive rating — 25th).

For a player of Lillard’s caliber, he has to be salivating at the thought of facing an opponent that has allowed 80 made three-pointers over their last four games. Not only is Dame hoisting over 10 threes a game, the Trail Blazers are launching 42.0 three-point attempts per contest. Only the Utah Jazz (42.4) average more.

To the surprise of many, the losses of CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic to significant injury has not derailed Portland’s playoff chances. Gary Trent is filling in admirably at shooting guard and Enes Kanter is controlling the glass. Throw in Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons’ contributions on offense and Robert Covington and Derrick Jones defensively, the Trail Blazers have figured out a winning formula despite hardship.

There’s no doubt the Trail Blazers represent a real test for the Pelicans. They’re riding good momentum and a proven superstar. However, don’t overlook that New Orleans has been playing better of late despite a three-game losing streak, and honestly, can anyone remotely slow down Zion Williamson?

So far, the answer has been a resounding no.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (12-15) vs Portland Trail Blazers (17-10)

When: February 17, 8:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: Fox Sports New Orleans

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.