After a tumultuous final few weeks of the regular season, the playoff seedings are finally set, and the Portland Trail Blazers have earned themselves a home series against the New Orleans Pelicans. In an unusual set of circumstances, just a solitary game separated these sides over the course of the regular season, meaning we could be in for a close series.
The Trail Blazers fought their way to a 49-33 regular season record on the back of a 17-7 post All-Star break run. During this time, their net rating was 5.5, a huge improvement on the 0.5 rating they achieved before the break. The Blazers lost four in a row before their final game of the season against the Jazz, but did enough to beat Utah in the battle for the third seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles injury, the Pelicans’ playoff hopes appeared to go with him. On the back of a Herculean post-All-Star effort from Anthony Davis, though, and continued high-level play from Jrue Holiday and the useful addition of Nikola Mirotic, they worked their way to a 48-34 record and sixth place in the Western Conference. They enter the playoffs in great form, having won five games in a row by an average winning margin of 18.8 points to end the regular season.
Three keys to the series
Portland’s defense – The Blazers surprised everyone by starting the season as one of the best defensive teams in the league, and though they dropped off slightly, their post All-Star defensive rating of 102.2 was the fourth best in the league in that time. The Pelicans offense is full of danger for opposing defenses, and all starters except for Rajon Rondo are more than capable of putting up big numbers. If the Blazers can nullify the offensive performances of the likes of Davis, Mirotic and Holiday, the Pelicans will have their backs against the wall.
The battle inside – The Pelicans ended the regular season as the most potent paint scoring team in the NBA. Throughout the course of 2017/18, they have scored 52.4 points per game in there, the most in the league. They have Davis to thank for this; only Giannis Antetokounmpo scored more paint points this season. Things won’t be so easy in the playoffs though. Defenses inevitably tighten up, and the Blazers are already one of the best sides in the league at defending the paint. They allowed just 42.1 points inside per game this season, more than only the 76ers and the Jazz.
How does Davis deal with playoffs? – Davis is undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the world, but in his six-year career, he has had little chance to show what he is made of when the pressure is at it’s highest. His only opportunity was in the 2015 playoffs when his Pelicans snuck into eighth place and faced the Warriors in the first round. They were routed 4-0, but it was through no fault of Davis. He averaged 31.5 points on 54% shooting, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game in the series. He will probably need to repeat that performance to give his side a shot in this series.
Matchups to watch
Damian Lillard vs Jrue Holiday – This one will be good. Lillard has taken things up a gear since the All-Star break and was the catalyst for the Blazers’ 17-5 run in that time. He averaged 28.6 points per game in those 22 games, the third most in the league, and dished out 6.6 assists to go with just 2.2 turnovers. Holiday is the Pelicans best small defender, so expect him to spend a lot of time harassing Portland’s best offensive player. At the other end of the floor, Holiday has been proving a handful this season. He is averaging a career-high 19 points per game on a career-high 49.4% shooting and is also dishing out 6.0 assists per game. He has been a key part of the Pelicans’ continued success in the absence of Cousins and will play a huge role at both ends of the floor in this series.
Anthony Davis vs Al-Farouq Aminu – Aminu doesn’t play much of a role at the offensive end of the floor for the Blazers, and Davis’ defensive talents will probably be predominantly used elsewhere (looking at you, Nurkic). At the Pelicans’ offensive end of the floor, however, this will be the most important matchup of the series. Aminu is a long and agile defender, the ideal matchup for Davis if such a thing exists. He has allowed just 45% of his opponents’ field goals to drop this season, a relatively low number for a guy dealing with 11.6 shot attempts a night from many of the oppositions’ best players. All this was to no avail last time they met, though, as Davis went 15-for-24 from the floor for 36 points. Essentially, all this goes to show is that if Davis is at his best, no one can stop him, but Aminu will at the least put in a gallant attempt to do so.
Davis was injured early in the first matchup between these two sides this season and sat out the next, but in the last two, he has been dominant. He has scored 36 points in both games on a combined 66% shooting, hauled in 11.5 rebounds per night, 3.0 assists, 3.0 blocks and 1.0 steals. Averaging 28 points, 2.2 steals and a huge 3.5 blocks in his past ten games coming into this series, expect him to be a force to be reckoned with.
Lillard has suffered mixed fortunes in his four games against the Pelicans this season, but his form is trending in the right direction. Early in the season, he went 3-for-16 from the floor for 13 points and turned it over six times to go with his seven assists. In the middle two games he was solid, but in the most recent he exploded for 41 points on 18-for-33 shooting, nine boards, six assists, and four steals. This included 20 points in the final quarter of a close game.
Portland Trail Blazers
PG – Damian Lillard | SG – CJ McCollum | SF – Evan Turner | PF – Al-Farouq Aminu | C – Jusuf Nurkic
New Orleans Pelicans
PG – Rajon Rondo | SG – Jrue Holiday | SF – E’Twaun Moore | PF – Nikola Mirotic | C – Anthony Davis
Game 1: Sat. April 14, 10:30pm ET @ Portland
Game 2: Tue. April 17, 10:30pm ET @ Portland
Game 3: Thu. April 19, 9pm ET @ New Orleans
Game 4: Sat. April 21, 5pm ET @ New Orleans
Game 5*: Tue. April 24, TBD @ Portland
Game 6*: Thu. April 26, TBD @ New Orleans
Game 7*: Sat. April 28, TBD @ Portland
This will be a good one. Both sides have some of the best talent in the league at both ends of the floor, meaning this will probably be a better series than your average 3 v 6 matchup. Davis, at last, gets another chance to show his mettle in the playoffs, and he will handle it with aplomb to average over 30 points, 12 boards, two steals and three blocks over the course of the series. Mirotic has been a welcome addition, particularly in the past few games, and if he can continue to find open lanes and hit his 3-point attempts in the face of tougher defense, it will go a long way for the Pelicans.
At the other end of the floor, McCollum and in particular Lillard will have the biggest roles to play for the Blazers. McCollum hasn’t been in great form and will need to lift, while Lillard will have no problems performing to his usual high standards. The Blazers point guard has a lot of very justified belief in himself, and he will lead his side to a series win here.
The Pelicans will steal an away victory in the first two games before the Blazers get one back in the next two, the final three games will all go to the home teams, and Portland will earn themselves a hard-fought 4-3 series win.
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