10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Pelicans -4.5, Over/Under: 238.5
With the All-Star Break now in the past, the race for the Playoffs is set to heat up with a pair of teams who are vying for the final spot in the Western Conference, as the Portland Trail Blazers play host to the New Orleans Pelicans from Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. Whether or not they happen to advance to the Postseason, this Pelicans (23-32, 11th in Western Conference) campaign will be broken down into two disparate parts: before and after Zion Williamson. The unanimous No. One Overall Pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Williamson (22.1 PTS, 57.6% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 7.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 25.4 PER) missed the forty-four games of the season rehabbing from knee surgery, with the franchise extremely cautious with his rehab, bringing him along as slowly as possible. On the court, New Orleans predictably struggled with a renovated roster following the seismic trade that sent All-Star Forward, Anthony Davis, to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for a number of promising, yet largely unproven, youngsters, such as Point Guard, Lonzo Ball (11.9 PTS, 40.0% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 12.9 PER), and Swingman, Brandon Ingram (24.9 PTS, 47.3% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.6 PER). Indeed, Alvin gentry had his hands full in integrating so many new faces into the fold, and as expected, the results were less than glamourous; the Pels lost all but six of their first twenty-eight contests, enduring a thirteen-game losing streak between late-November and mid-December that put them squarely in a hole that they are still currently still trying to dig their way out of. Then news finally broke that Williamson was nearing his return to the hardwood, eventually making his debut on January 22nd against the San Antonio Spurs, and though his side would meet defeat, 121-117, his very presence ignited an energy within the team that they’ve managed to feed off ever since. in the eleven games that have followed, the Pelicans have gone 6-5 and as a result have drawn within striking distance of the Eighth Seed in the West, though they’re currently embroiled in a dogfight with the Spurs and their opponent tonight, the Blazers, for that prize, separated by 1.5 games and trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by five in the Standings. So needless to say, the time is now to make a move for a young group that could certainly benefit from the experience of playing in the Playoffs, which is somewhere that the franchise itself has been just twice in the past eight years. Winners of three of their past four outings heading into the All-Star Break, the Pelicans no doubt benefitted from that respite, and should be fresh and healthy for this stretch run over the next six weeks. Since Williamson’s inclusion to the Starting Lineup, they’ve improved dramatically offensively, averaging 121.1 Points on 48.6% shooting from the field, including 38.8% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 29.4 Assists. Sure, they’ve turned the basketball over more than you’d like (17.1), but that’s what can be expected with such a young team. Furthermore, they’ve bullied opponents on the glass, outrebounding them by a margin of 6.8 boards, and have really done a good job of getting to the Charity Stripe, where they’ve attempted an average of 26.2 Free-Throws, knocking down 74.0% of them. The Rookie Forward has given them an athletic, physical presence in the Paint, scoring 22.1 Points per Game on an efficient 57.6% shooting, while drawing plenty of contact along the way, attempting a team-high 7.8 Free-Throws, and securing 3.5 Offensive Rebounds. At 6-6, 285 pounds he is an absolute load to deal with around the rim, while possessing a freakish athleticism that allows him make plays against larger defenders. Now imagine the impact that he’ll make once he drops some more weight… With that said, Williamson isn’t the only notable youngster on this roster, for the aforementioned Ingram has spent much of his first term in the Big Easy making good on his considerable potential. The former No. 2 Overall Pick never quite found his form in Los Angeles, but has thrived in new surroundings, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Points (24.9), Three-Pointers (2.5), Three-Point Percentage (40.0%), Free-Throws (5.3), Free-Throw Percentage (86.2%), Rebounds (6.4), Assists (4.2), and Steals (1.0), deservedly earning his first All-Star Selection. When we last saw New Orleans, they saw their three-game winning streak snapped in a spirited 118-123 defeat at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Ingram sitting out the affair with a tender ankle, Williamson enjoyed arguably his strongest showing as a pro, posting a game-high Thirty-Two Points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field (57.9%), and knocking down 10-of-13 Free-Throws (76.9%), along with Six Rebounds, and Assist and a Block. This was a very tight contest apart from a second period in which the game simply got away from the home side; the hosts shot just 7-of-18 from the field (38.9%), including 3-of-9 from downtown (33.3%), while committing six of their Seventeen Turnovers, allowing the visitors eleven more Field Goal Attempts, mostly in transition. Tonight’s crucial encounter with the Trail Blazers will be their fourth and final meeting of the Regular Season, with the Pelicans winning each of the previous three, including a 138-111 victory just ten days ago. On that night, Williamson once again led the way with Thirty-One Points, Nine Rebounds, and Five Assists, while the Bench put in a HUGE shift with Forty-Nine Points, Twenty of which came courtesy of veteran sharpshooter, J.J. Redick (15.7 PTS, 45.4% FG, 45.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.4 AST, 15.8 PER), who knocked down 4-of-7 attempts from long range (57.1%).
Meanwhile, oh what a difference a year has made for the Trail Blazers (25-31, 9th in Western Conference), and not in a good way, for a year after advancing to their first Western Conference Final since 2000, find themselves on the outside looking of the Playoffs. As we stated earlier, Portland is among three teams fighting it out to overtake the Grizzlies for the Eighth Seed in the West, trailing Memphis by four games. So what the hell has happened to this team, you ask? Well, injuries and a lack of depth have really been a problem for Terry Stotts & Co., and it really began last year when they lost Starting Center, Jusuf Nurkic, to a serious leg injury that has cost him the entirety of this season thus far, along with the final nine contests and all of the Postseason in 2019. In an attempt to replace the towering Bosnian, the club acquired the mercurial Hassan Whiteside (15.7 PTS, 61.3% FG, 14.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 3.0 BLK, 24.8 PER) via trade with the Miami Heat, only to then see both Power Forward, Zach Collins (9.0 PTS, 47.4% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 9.0 PER), and sharpshooting Guard, Rodney Hood (11.0 PTS, 50.6% FG, 49.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 12.2 PER), suffer serious injuries as well, the former a separated shoulder and the latter a torn Achilles. Already thin at Forward, and now lacking depth on the wing, the Blazers brought ten-time All-Star nd former Scoring Champion, Carmelo Anthony (15.1 PTS, 41.4% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 1.5 AST, 11.7 PER), out of basketball purgatory in a last ditch effort cure what has ailed them. Since that point, Stotts has had to make things work with a shoestring roster, relying on the heroics of Damian Lillard (29.5 PTS, 46.0% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.8 PER), who carried this team like never before. Make no mistake, folks, for this has been out of absolute necessity, for we shutter to think where they’d be without the All-Star Point Guard. Lillard has logged the most minutes (37.0) since his rookie campaign, while posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Points (29.4), Field Goal Percentage (46.0%), Three-Pointers (3.9), Free-Throws (6.8), and Assists (7.9). Fresh off a fourteen-game stretch in which he was otherworldly, averaging 38.4 Points on 50.9% shooting from the floor, including 47.6% from downtown, 4.9 Rebounds and 9.0 Assists, a period in which the club went 9-5, Portland unfortunately received a huge scare on the eve of the All-Star Break when he appeared to have pulled his groin in 104-11 loss at the Grizzlies. This one stung for a plethora of reasons, folks, for in addition to dropping a decision against a team that they’re in direct competition with for the Playoffs, they could also potentially be without Lillard for quite some time, for after the game the 29-Year Old declared that he wouldn’t be participating in last Sunday’s exhibition, and would be re-evaluated in a week’s time. Roughly a week later, and he’s yet to be given the green light by the Medical Staff, which really puts the Blazers in a precarious position. Simply put, if they’re forced to endure any prolonged period without him, then this will in all likelihood be the fatal blow to their postseason aspirations. Yes, Whiteside and Anthony have both played well in their respective roles with their new club, and while he too has missed some time with his own injuries, veteran Shooting Guard, C.J. McCollum (21.3 PTS, 44.6% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 3.8 AST, 16.0 PER), can catch fire from the perimeter rather quickly, but Lillard is the proverbial engine that keeps things moving for Portland, and without him they juts don’t have enough to remain afloat in the Western Conference. And this is where the aforementioned Anthony can really change the narrative of his career in a positive manner. After a brief stint with the Houston Rockets that last just ten games, he was shipped to the Chicago Bulls for Cash Considerations, only to be promptly waived and spending the rest of the 2018-19 campaign without a team. Cited by many around the league as a poor fit for this modern era of basketball due to his isolation-heavy midrange skills, defensive liabilities, and reluctance to come off the Bench, some wondered if the 35-Year Old would ever play again. However, necessity dictated that Portland bring him in, and to his credit he’s proven to be a far better fit within Stotts’ jumper-centric system, while even setting his ego aside, and filling in at Power Forward as a Stretch-4, all the while doing so on a very affordable $2.159 Million Contract. With the aforementioned Collins set to return in early March, Anthony still has the offensive skillset to thrive in Lillard’s absence, and should only benefit more by shifting back to his natural position of Small Forward. If Anthony wants to truly prolong his career and prove to the rest of the league that can still make a positive impact then now is the time to do it, because the Blazers could really use some help right now as their chances of returning to the Playoffs are slipping away.