The NBA playoffs are finally here. After a tumultuous regular season defined by injuries and shake-ups, we are bringing you some playoff previews before the first round begins.
Here we will examine one of the most evenly matched first-round series. The Pelicans and Trail Blazers match up well on paper, playing contrasting styles of basketball. It will likely be one of the more hotly contested series, as Anthony Davis and a fantastic Portland backcourt face off.
Here is a summary of the series between the No. 3 seed and No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
Regular season summary
Portland’s road to the third seed was paved by the scoring prowess of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Fourth-year center Jusuf Nurkic was also small revelation, as he continues to improve.
According to NBA.com, the Trail Blazers sit just outside of the top half of NBA teams in their offensive rating. They land there despite a fantastic scoring offense due to their assist problems. The Blazers are dead last in assists per game, and 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Despite the selfish play, Lillard scored at a clip of 26.9 points per game, and McCollum added 21.4 points per game while playing in 81 of 82 regular season contests. Nurkic was good for 14.3 points, and almost averaged a double-double, with nine rebounds per game.
The bench was less productive, however, despite having some talented players. The bench ranked 28th in points per game with 27.7.
A major strength of the team during the season was their underrated defense. Portland’s defensive rating puts them in the top 10 in the league. The Blazers’ defense tallied 5.2 blocks per game, which was seventh in the NBA.
Shockingly, the Trail Blazers are also in the top 10 in opponents’ points off of turnovers, even though they ranked in the bottom three in assist-to-turnover ratio. That stat speaks to a team that is not afraid to make mistakes, as they can rest easy knowing their defense can bail them out.
Overall, Portland has to figure out a way to break out of their iso-ball identity if they are going to advance very far in the playoffs. But the scoring of the Blazers’ three stars and great team defense can and will win them games.
The real story of New Orleans’ season has been Anthony Davis’ continued emergence as a bona fide superstar. Davis put the entire team on his back and carried the Pelicans to a playoff berth.
DeMarcus Cousins’ injury was supposed to spell doom for New Orleans in a brutal Western Conference. Averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, matching Cousins’ production is a tough hill to climb. Davis took that challenge in stride though and ended his season at 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
With eight games with at least 40 points that all came with double-digit rebounds, Davis was nearly unstoppable this year, especially after Cousins went down. It is no secret that the entire offense runs through Davis, which will have to continue into the playoffs if New Orleans wants the wins to keep rolling in.
The rest of the offense functioned well throughout the season as well. The Pelicans ended the season third in assists per game, which contributed to their top-10 offensive rating. However, the bench was 26th in scoring and 28th in rebounds. The bench does not get much time though, with 16.9 minutes per game.
New Orleans does not quite lack defensively, but the impressive stats do not add up to a fantastic defensive rating.
Sitting at third in blocks per game at 5.9 and eighth in steals per game at eighth, one would expect their ranking to sit higher than 13th. But this can be attributed to lackluster team defense. The Pelicans allowed the second most points and second most offensive rebounds to opposing teams.
Again, the key to success here is Anthony Davis. He has to play well, and receive some vintage play from Rajon Rondo to have any semblance of hope in the playoffs.
Breakdown and Predictions
The name of the game for Portland is stopping Davis, as previously stated. That will fall to Jusuf Nurkic, who is talented defensively. Davis is going to get his, but Nurkic has to stop the bleeding.
The backcourt matchups definitely tilt in favor of the Blazers. Rondo and E’Twaun Moore will have the unenviable task of keeping Lillard and McCollum off of the 3-point line. Rondo is starting to show his age, and Moore is more of a scoring guard, so they will have to keep a fantastic backcourt tandem from matching and raising Davis’ totals.
Benches tend to come alive in the NBA playoffs, so expect to see more production out of both benches now that the regular season is over. New Orleans had just a slight edge in the regular season, so it will be interesting to see which one can contribute more.
Again, if the stats are to be believed, it will be Portland who wins the rebounding battle. New Orleans is a smaller team than fans might think, and Portland has length coming off of the bench in Meyers Leonard and Pat Connaughton. Creating second chances and robbing a team of theirs is paramount to playoff success.
With surprisingly similar 3-point percentages, those numbers will likely lean towards the Trail Blazers. The quickness of the wing players, in contrast to the more methodical approach that the Pelicans take, will swing it their direction.
New Orleans quite clearly has an advantage when it comes to ball movement. That will be a major problem for a Portland team that struggles to share the ball. Leaning on iso play will be hard with Davis guarding the paint.
The smart money is on Portland here.
The Blazers have three different players that can hurt you, while the Pelicans have one. Not only do they only have one, they have made it clear that they will not be getting away from that style of play anytime soon, if their last month is to be taken as an example.
It will not be a sweep, and Davis will put up some eye-popping numbers while making Nurkic look silly more than a couple of times. But without another legitimate scoring option apart from scoring by committee, the Pelicans are looking at an early exit.
Trail Blazers in six
Featured image by Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports
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