For the next few days, the FPC NBA staff will preview each NBA playoff series. Next up, Ben Pfeifer previews the Trail Blazers vs Pelicans series.
The 3-6 matchup in the west looks to be one of the tightest and most entertaining in the NBA. Here, we have two teams that before the All-Star break were firmly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Blazers sat at 27-24 and the Pelicans sat 28-23. After the All-Star break, both of these teams proved that they were not like the rest in the West. Both teams went on big win streaks. Portland won 13 straight and the Pelicans ended the year on five-game streaks. Portland established themselves as the clear third best team in the West. Although New Orleans is the sixth seed, they ranked as high as fourth and could easily be higher.
The teams are both led by MVP candidates. Damian Lillard continued his stellar play this season, averaging 27 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.5 rebounds on the season. Lillard has been clutch all year as always. Post All-Star break, Anthony Davis may have been the best player in the NBA. In 24 games, he averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and two steals. He led the Pelicans to a 17-7 record over that span.
Both teams have two very good secondary scorers in Nikola Mirotic and C.J. McCollum. During the start of the season, Mirotic looked like a star with the Bulls. At one point, he led them to an eight-game win streak. After DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, everyone ruled the Pelicans out of the playoffs. They had other things in mind. They traded for Nikola Mirotic, who proved to be a very reliable second option for them. He averaged 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. For C.J. McCollum, he was still a reliable and prolific scorer. McCollum averaged 21.4 points, 3.4 assists, and four rebounds. He and Lillard make for a backcourt that not many can contain.
Keys To The Series
This series, Anthony Davis is going to dominate. He is the best player in this series, and could single-handedly carry the Pelicans to a victory over Portland. Someone on the Blazers needs to step up and contain him; that man is Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic is a big and physical defender. He is very competitive, tough, and a good rebounder. Nurkic ranks 12th in the NBA in defensive box plus-minus (2.8), ninth in defensive win shares (3.9), and seventh in defensive rating (101.5). He may be able to defend Davis down low but he will struggle to contain him on the break, off of the dribble and on the perimeter. Nurkic cannot come close to matching Davis. Let’s be real: nobody in the NBA can truly stop AD. All Portland can hope for is to contain him.
Playoff Rajon Rondo
At this point in the his career, Rajon Rondo is nothing special. Sure, he passes well, but he is a ball stopper on offense. He doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t drive to the basket, and he doesn’t play defense. Rondo averaged 8.3 points and 8.2 assists this year. The Pelicans are probably better off playing Darius Miller or E’Twaun Moore. So, why is Rondo a key to the series? Well, we all know what happens when Rondo gets into the playoffs.
Last season, the eighth seeded Bulls came into the playoffs as heavy underdogs to the Celtics. After two games, they led 2-0 and were in control of the series. All of this was because of Rajon Rondo. Rondo averaged 11.5 points, 10 boards, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals with an 8.5 plus-minus (!!!). He looked like he went back in time seven years. Uncharacteristically, he was playing defense and attacking the basket. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Rondo went down with an injury after game two and the Bulls lost the series 4-2. If the Pelicans want to keep up with Lillard and McCollum offensively, Rondo has to turn his play up to another level.
Defending Dame and C.J.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum form what may be the best offensive backcourt in the NBA. The Pelicans absolutely must figure out a way to contain the duo to some extent. Jrue Holiday is a solid defender at the point guard position; he ranked fifth in the NBA in contested three point shots per game with 4.3 and 10th in the league in deflections per game with 3.1. E’Twaun Moore is a solid defender but nothing special. Like I mentioned earlier, Rondo is a liability on defense. They will need to find someone else to leave open to focus more on the dynamic duo.
The primary candidate is Evan Turner. Although his season was better, he is not a three point shooter by any means (31.8%). Unfortunately, Portland is filled with good to great shooters, including Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless if he returns. Alvin Gentry will need to be on his game, drawing up a defensive gameplan to stop Portland’s high powered offense.
Anthony Davis is the best player in this series. He is going to average at least 25 points and at least 10 rebounds per came. However, Portland is the better team top to bottom. Lillard and McCollum will get buckets and they are littered with great wing players. Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless are two of the best bench players in this league. Lastly, as we all know, playoff Lillard is a different animal. Blazers win in six.
Ben Pfeifer is the Managing Editor of the Colts for Full Press Coverage, the AFC South Division Editor, and head NBA editor. Want to continue the discussion? Contact Ben Pfeifer on Twitter @Ben_Pfeifer_, @FPC_NBA and @FPC_Colts.