To say that it was a disappointing end to the season would be a massive understatement. To say that it was an unexpected surprise to have made it this far? Now that’s where things get muddy.
NBA insiders and experts across the league had the Blazers winning somewhere in the realm of 37-41 games this season. Strictly based on these expectations, the Blazers far exceeded them by winning 49 games and securing the third seed in the competitive Western Conference. A playoff sweep was expected at the beginning of the season, but not a soul would have anticipated the brooms being brought out by the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Warriors? Of course. The Rockets? Sure, a sweep was possible. But the Pelicans? Anyone with an ounce of betting blood in them would have taken the Blazers in a series at the beginning of the season.
But so is the way of the NBA ocean. The Blazers simply caught their wave at the wrong time. They ran up against one of the hottest teams with arguably the best player of the second half of the season and were simply outmatched in their playoff run. The New Orleans Pelicans team they were forced to tussle with was a nightmare for any team, but the Blazers matched up especially poorly.
Anthony Davis was an unguardable unicorn for the entire series. Averaging 33 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game in the sweep, including a ridiculous 47-point, 11-rebound performance in the series finale. Davis simply had his way with whatever defender the Blazers threw at him. He made a living at the free throw line, averaging nearly ten attempts per game from the charity stripe and dominated on the defensive end. It was one of the greatest individual playoff performances from someone not named LeBron James in recent memory.
But Davis was hardly the only bad matchup for the Blazers. Playoff Rondo made a dramatic return to form, joining Magic Johnson as the only other player to dish out 53 or more assists in a four-game playoff series. Rajon Rondo seeming turned back the clock ten years to become a world-class point guard. Rondo controlled not only the pace and flow of all four games in the series, but kept the Pelicans’ young group levelheaded in the important minutes. Rondo was a leader of men and used his wisdom and experience to control the entire series.
But the biggest revelation of this Pelicans team was Jrue Holiday, who few believed was worth the gaudy $26 million a year contract the Pelicans gave him. Holiday was the best player on the New Orleans side for extended stretches. That’s including times in which he shared the floor with Davis. Holiday shared the scoring load, averaging 27.8 points per game in the series including a playoff career high 33 point effort in game two and then topping that with a 41 point game in the decider. It’s entirely possible that the “Playoff Rondo” moniker torch will be passed to Holiday following his first round brilliance.
While Holiday was spectacular scoring on the offensive end, he truly shined on the defensive end. Shutting down high engine guards like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is no small task, but Holiday put the clamps down on both of the Blazers’ guards for key stretches. In the playoffs, it’s those two-minute runs that are all the difference and Holiday showed his mastery of those moments.
I say all of that to say this: the Portland Trail Blazers were extremely unlucky. New Orleans could very well be the “team of destiny” this year and in a few weeks from now, we could be witnessing a Western Conference Finals game from the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. They truly are that good.
Lillard and McCollum were simply outclassed. Rondo and Holiday got the better of them. The Blazers’ tandem is still relatively young and this was their first playoff test. The first time the team was favored to win a series.
But the series loss means an entire offseason of wondering where things go from here. The Blazers have little in terms of cap flexibility thanks to poorly structured contract signings over the past two offseasons. The team is already far over the projected salary cap for next season and will still have to figure out what to do with the expiring contracts of Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, both of whom were key bench players this season.
Between Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, and Meyers Leonard, the Blazers are committed to nearly $40 million. Those three names are simply not worth that amount of coin.
A playoff series win might have made that fact an easier pill to swallow. At least the team would have had something to hang their hat on, but a sweep at the hands of the Pelicans has turned an offseason of hope into one of dread and misery.
The Blazers have a long road ahead. For now we will just have to wait and see where that road takes them.