Two years ago, the Blazers reached the Western Conference semifinals by taking advantage of an LA Clippers team that lost Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to injuries. This time they get the Pelicans without DeMarcus Cousins. Some teams get all the breaks.
The Blazers are bringing virtually the same squad from 2016, but boast a more energized Damian Lillard -- a big-shot maker who’s coming off a regular season that will surely get him some Kia MVP love in the ballots. They lost twice to the Pelicans during the season, but Cousins played both of those games.
Undoubtedly, the Blazers’ front line will have its hands full with the other guy, Anthony Davis, another Kia MVP candidate, who dragged New Orleans (20-8 since Feb. 10) to the postseason with monster performances over the last month. But having his big-man tag-team partner by his side would’ve made a huge impact in this series. As it is, the Blazers and Pelicans will be decided by the supporting cast surrounding the two stars. There are a handful of capable candidates on both teams to fill that role, yet the playoffs tend to cause stage fright. Who’s ready to take a stand?
3 quick questions and answers
- Can Jusuf Nurkic bring out the Bosnian Beast? He was a smash hit initially after being acquired from the Nuggets 14 months ago, then cooled considerably the first few months of this season for Portland. He has averaged 14.5 points and 12 rebounds the last two months, however, and must show even more spunk against Davis.
- Can Rajon Rondo be a factor? Usually, guards with no shooting range would automatically be dismissed in this discussion, but Rondo goes against that notion. Last year his all-around game was just shy of brilliant for the Bulls in a near-upset over the Boston Celtics in the first round. And his floor direction is key for the Pelicans and allows Jrue Holiday to play off the ball. Rondo vs. Lillard, two tough competitors, will be good theater.
- OK, who needs this more: Davis or Lillard? Both are accomplished players and still in their prime, so they’ll likely get additional chances in the future. But this is only Davis’ second playoff appearance, and first since 2015 (when he lasted four games). He has no idea what May basketball feels like. Does he finally have the help that’ll get him there?
The number to know
13.6 -- The Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Jrue Holiday on the floor (plus-5.7) than they were with him off the floor (minus-7.9). That was the third biggest on-off differential among players who played at least 1,000 minutes this season. The bigger difference was on defense, where the Pelicans allowed 112.3 points per 100 possessions (a rate much worse than the league's worst defense this season) when Holiday sat. When he was on the floor, they allowed just 103.1, and when he played point guard, they allowed just 100.6. Against Portland in the regular season, Holiday was a minus-20 in 75 minutes when he shared the floor with Rajon Rondo or Jameer Nelson, and a plus-18 in 74 minutes when they were both on the bench and he was the point guard. -- John Schuhmann
Making the pick
This is a series with two massive stars leading otherwise ordinary teams that are capable of streaking in either direction. It all depends on how Davis and Lillard impact the series, but also the defense (for Portland) and 3-point shooting (for New Orleans) -- in addition to other factors. Assuming that CJ McCollum and Holiday bring their usual consistency, the situation begs for an unexpected hero, be it E’Twuan Moore or Evan Turner or Nikola Mirotic. The Blazers are a bit deeper and hold home court advantage and those could be difference-makers in a matchup that’s hopelessly even, allowing the Blazers to prevent Rip City from becoming R.I.P city. Blazers in 7.