10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Trail Blazers -5.5, Over/Under: 217
With the Regular Season now in the rearview mirror and the dust finally settled, the NBA Playoffs begin with the last of today’s quartet of matchups taking center-stage, as the Third-Seeded Portland trail Blazers host the Sixth-Seeded New Orleans Pelicans in Game One of their First Round Series from Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. After playing a game of proverbial Musical Chairs with about six other teams for over two months, the Pelicans (48-34, 6th in Western Conference) clinched their first Playoff Birth in three years with Monday’s 113-100 victory over the Clippers, which admittedly wasn’t thought to be a probable outcome for a team that had lost one of their foundational pieces about a month before the All-Star Break. Back on January 27th, New Orleans lost All-Star Center DeMarcus Cousins (25.2 PTS, 47.0% FG, 12.9 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.6 BLK, 22.6 PER) to a torn Achilles for the remainder of the term, sending shockwaves through a franchise that has struggled to improve in the dogged Western Conference. Cousins, along with fellow All-Star MVP Candidate Anthony Davis (28.1 PTS, 53.4% FG, 11.1 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.6 BLK, 28.9 PER) had formed the most imposing tandem of Bigs that the league had seen in ages, eschewing the infatuation with Small-Ball for a more classic approach, posting a 27-21 record, all the while finding their rhythm, winning Nine out of Twelve Games before Cousins went down for the count. Though they initially struggled going 4-5 heading into the All-Star Break, Alvin Gentry’s charges emerged from the respite like a swarm of locusts, stringing together seven consecutive victories, in route to going 17-8 overall over the Third Leg of the Regular Season. Davis, for his troubles, has been in absolute BEAST MODE since his comrade in arms bit the dust, averaging 30.2 Points on 51.4% Shooting from the Field, 11.9 Rebounds, 2.2 Assists, 2.0 Steals, and 3.2 Blocks. Credit goes to Gentry and his Staff for making the requisite adjustments without the 6-11, 270-lbs behemoth occupying the a pace in the Rotation; as the Pelicans ride a 6-Game Winning Streak into the Playoffs, they averaged a whopping 121.2 Points on 51.6% Shooting, including 39.3% from beyond the Arc, while dishing out an efficient 32.8 Assists in the process. Veteran Point Guard Jrue Holiday (19.0 PTS, 49.4% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.8 PER) has been an unsung hero for this group, putting together arguably the most complete season of his 9-Year Career, while the addition of Chicago Bulls’ outcast Nikola Mirotic (14.6 PTS, 42.7% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.9 NBLK, 16.3 PER) shortly before the Trade Deadline is looking smarter with each passing contest. Now that they’ve finally reached the Postseason, they’ll find Portland awaiting them, a team that New Orleans split their Regular Season Series against, with each team winning on the other’s home court. However, both of the Pelicans’ wins came BEFORE Cousins was lost for the season, with the lone meeting afterward being a tightly-contested 107-103 victory for the Blazers back on March 26th at Smoothie King Center, in Louisiana. Davis and Holiday carried the Hosts that night, with the former accounting for Thirty-Six Points, Fourteen Rebounds, Four Assists, Two Steals, and Six Blocks, while the latter logged a Triple-Double consisting of Twenty-One Points, along with Eleven Rebounds and Assists apiece. Despite their heroics, they simply couldn’t overcome a truly abysmal shooting performance from the perimeter, where they only managed to knock down a miserable 4-of-24 Attempts (16.7%), with the Visiting Side besting them by Eighteen Points in that regard.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans weren’t the only team out West to employ a Full-Court Press down the stretch, for you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that was hotter than the Trail Blazers (49-33, 3rd in Western Conference) after the All-Star Break. In all fairness, Portland’s upward turn came about far earlier than that, for at the midway point of the schedule, they seemed to be yet another team meandering through the year, searching for an identity at 22-21 in mid-January. That, ladies and gentlemen, is where Terry Stotts’ charges underwent a significant change into a far superior defensive team, with the tandem of Damian Lillard (26.9 PTS, 43.9% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.1 STL, 25.2 PER) and CJ McCollum (21.4 PTS, 44.3% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 17.0 PER) set to light the league on fire. The Blazers would go on to win Twenty-Two out of their next Twenty-Seven Games, which included a 13-Game Winning Streak that vaulted them up the ladder in the Western Conference into a comfortable position that an otherwise forgettable 5-7 finish couldn’t erase. As we stated earlier, the catalyst for their success has been their newfound defensive efficiency; Portland has ranked among the league’s best on this end of the court, relegating opponents to 103.0 Points (5th Overall) on 44.7% Shooting from the Field (4th Overall), including 48.4% from within the Arc (2nd Overall), and 20.2 Assists (2nd Overall), while receiving high grades in Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (50.3%, 4th Overall) and Defensive Rebounding Percentage Allowed (79.1%, 5th Overall). Indeed, this is a stark contrast for a team that ranked 25th and 12th in Points Allowed and Field Goal Percentage Allowed a year ago. And it’s with that said, this is precisely where Jusuf Nurkic (14.3 PTS, 50.5% FG, 9.0 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 19.2 PER) will have arguably the largest role to play in this series with the Pelicans, and potentially beyond that. The massive 7-0, 280-lbs Bosnian Center has been a proverbial wrecking ball for Stotts & Co. ever since he was acquired from the Denver Nuggets at last year’s Trade Deadline, providing a true physical presence in the post that will be key to combating the aforementioned Davis. Over the second half of the campaign, the 23-Year Old has averaged 14.1 Points on 55.1% Shooting, 10.1 Rebounds, 1.7 Assists, 0.9 Steals, and 1.6 Blocks despite logging only 25.7 Minutes a night. When these teams last met up in the Big Easy, Nurkic was very impressive, scoring Twenty-One Points on 10-of-14 Shooting, along with Ten Rebounds, and Four Blocks. While he initially struggled to contend with both Cousins and Davis in earlier matchups, that problem is no longer a concern with the former’s injury, leaving Nurkic’s only legitimate goal staying out of foul trouble and using his size to ward the MVP Candidate away from the rim. And speaking of MVP Candidates, Lillard certainly injected himself into the conversation on the strength of his play over the second half of the term, particularly Post-All-Star Break; Simply put, No. 0 was a bad man after the Break, averaging 28.6 Points on 42.2% Shooting, including 34.2% from Downtown, along with 4.3 Rebounds and 6.6 Assists, leading the Blazers to a 17-7 record in that span.