After completing their six-game homestand with a 3-3 record, including two dominant wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Pelicans find themselves with an opportunity to claw their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
The Pelicans trail the tenth place Memphis Grizzlies by 1.5 games as they take off on a three-game road trip starting with a stop in Portland where they will face the Blazers twice in three nights.
Going on the road has not been kind to the Pelicans, where they have won just five of 17. The second half schedule won’t make it any easier. New Orleans will play 13 of their 19 away from home against teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs in either conference.
Once again, the Pelicans have lured the faithful in with their last two performances; beating the Cavs and Clippers by a combined 54 points. Just when it seemed as if the team had reached its rock bottom in a 30-point loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, they have rebounded with shocking displays of energetic and intelligent basketball.
Over those wins, New Orleans ranks second in offense (125.5), third in defense (98.5), and second in net rating (+27.0).
Key to the offense has been the Pels’ willingness to share the basketball. They’ve recorded an assist on 63 of their last 100 field goals. Nine players averaged at least two assists over the last two games.
In turn, the quality of the Pelicans’ shots and their field goal percentage have both increased. The front court has been devastating. Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams and Jaxson Hayes shot a combined 59 of 78 (75.6 pct) from the floor, better than 80 percent from inside the arc.
On the perimeter, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball have made defenses pay when they’ve collapsed on Williamson or tried to corral Ingram.
New Orleans has gotten quality contributions from everyone who has touched the floor, with maybe the exception of Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe continues to be an enigma, confusing and confounding fans with both his play and his presence on the roster.
Perhaps equally as confounding has been the defensive turnaround that followed the disaster against the Wolves.
Opponents are shooting a league-worst 40 percent against New Orleans recent defensive effort, including only 29.3 percent from distance, while three-point makes are down to 11 per night. Compare that to their season averages of 47.4, 39.1, and 15.4.
Of course, the Pelicans won’t play this type of defense every night. The Cavaliers are one of the NBA’s worst offensive teams, and the Clippers will very rarely shoot as poorly as they did against New Orleans.
They can play with the level of intensity and teamwork on a more regular basis though. The Pelicans are fully capable of that. Often the mind is willing, and the flesh weak. Let’s just say that the team’s problems have nothing to do with the weakness of their flesh.
So, which team shows up in Portland tonight?
The Trail Blazers have opened up the second half of the season going 1-2. Damian Lillard continues to put up MVP-caliber numbers, but Portland hasn’t had either CJ McCollum or Yusuf Nurkic at their disposal for much of the season. McCollum is expected to return against the Pelicans after sitting out the last 25 games.
Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum will make his return to the lineup on Tuesday vs. New Orleans. He's back from a fractured foot.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 15, 2021
Lillard will be Lillard. The Pelicans just can’t allow him to be Dame Dollar, the guy who lit New Orleans up with 43 points and 16 assists, leading Portland to a two-point victory in the first meeting between these two Western Conference rivals.
The Pelicans have favorable matchups on both ends of the court. They do most nights. But as Stan Van Gundy said following the win over LA, “I think the first three games here after the break have shown one thing: we are capable of being very, very good and we are capable of being very, very, bad. It is all about what we bring to the game.”
Have the Pelicans packed their “A” game on this trip to the Pacific Northwest? It’s just a matter of hours until we know.
Who: New Orleans Pelicans (17-22) at Portland Trail Blazers (22-16)
When: March 16, 9:00 p.m. Central
Where to watch: FSNOLA, TNT
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 @DMGrubb.