Finally! Eighty-two games and only on the last night did we find out that the Portland Trail Blazers are locked into a matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans. After one of the wildest finishes to the regular season – even counting last year – we have our 2018 NBA Playoff opponent.
Checking in at 48-34, the Pelicans overcame the loss of DeMarcus Cousins to finally achieve some of the promise that Anthony Davis has tantalized the league with since his arrival. For the first time, we are seeing what Davis looks like as a leader, not just the leading player. Jrue Holiday packs a scoring punch with feisty defense, and Rajon Rondo is the same pest he’s always been. Add on Nikola Mirotic at the power forward, and this matchup looks dangerous.
On the other side is Damian Lillard, who has embraced the leadership role even before the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard has led his squad to a 49-33 record, a Northwest Division title, and home court in the first round versus the Pelicans. Not bad for a guy who had his leadership questioned in the first third of the season. Its always satisfying to see Dame get slighted, because every Blazer fan knows he’s got a legendary chip on his shoulder. Of course, this wouldn’t mean much if Lillard and CJ McCollum hadn’t stepped up their defensive games so much this season (Dame went from 1.5 Defensive Win Shares in 2017, to 2.7 this year, CJ 1.4 in 2017 to 2.9 in 2018 under the advanced stats tab) along with the rest of the squad finally looking like they have grasped Terry Stotts defensive scheme.
Speaking of defense, even with a bit of a late-season swoon, the Blazers end the year with the #8 ranked defense in the West, #5 in defensive rebounding percentage, and #9 in preventing second-chance points. The Pelicans, on the other wing, rank 13th, 20th, and 30th respectively. The teams split the regular-season series 2-2, with neither unit winning by more than the Blazers’ 10 points way back on October 24th.
In a league that seems to have entire teams made up of power forwards – Im looking at you, 2015 Timberwolves – the Trail Blazers have somehow missed out, and one potential acquisition will now be suiting up for the Pels, Nikola Mirotic. While he hasn’t been shooting as well as he had been with the Bulls (47% FG, 43% from beyond the arc with Chicago, 42% FG, 35% from deep with New Orleans) he can get on a hot streak that the Blazers may have a tough time countering with their forward platoon.
Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday will make life miserable for Dame and CJ with pesky defense and a propensity for stealing the rock. Jrue has logged 31 steals vs Portland this season, his second-highest total against any team (the Clippers are first, the Kings are third and neither squad is going to the playoffs.) The Pelicans have also held CJ to just 35% shooting overall and held Dame to a mere 25% from deep. As long as the Blazers remember they have played top-ten defense all season and don’t turn back their patented “Matador” style, neither Rondo nor Holiday should break the series for the Pels. That’s Anthony Davis’ job.
Jusuf Nurkic going up against Anthony Davis should be entertaining. The Brow has played well against Portland this year, averaging 24/8/2, shooting 56% from the field. Despite that, he ended up -2.9(+/-) overall. The Bosnian Beast’s stats are a bit more modest, slashing 15/6/.08 but he has shot 58% from the field – significantly higher than his 50% mark overall – and is a +4.6(+/-) against New Orleans on the year. If Nurk can play Davis to a draw, the Blazers’ path to victory becomes more like a sidewalk.
The Beast/The Brow