#6 New Orleans Pelicans vs. #3 Portland Trail Blazers
Game 1: Saturday, April 14th, 2018
Location: Portland, OR
Time: 9:30 PM (CT), ESPN
Spread: POR -5.5
Odds c/o 5dimes
Many felt the New Orleans Pelicans season was cashed when it lost star big man DeMarcus Cousins, but New Orleans has arrived on the large shoulders of Anthony Davis and will challenge the outstanding backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Round One of the Western Conference playoffs, as the Pelicans square off against the Portland Trail Blazers.
There has been one consistent knock against MVP candidate Anthony Davis throughout his NBA career, a quip that many have with superstars like Davis: He has yet to win, not in the postseason. But with the Pelicans now playing on the strength of Davis, they have been perhaps better than ever— riding the final stretch of the season to a No. 6 seed in the playoffs and a clash with perhaps an overrated No. 3 seed in the Portland Trail Blazers.
To be sure, Portland boasts one of the best backcourts in the NBA, but can it contend with the talent that Davis is, especially given the lack of depth behind Blazers starting center Josef Nurkic?
How Nurkic manages to stay out of trouble and log court time will factor in heavily in this series, as will the defensive pressure Jrue Holiday is able to apply to mega-star Damian Lillard. Lillard has been playing the best basketball of his young career, but Holiday is a lockdown defender and one-time All-Star in his own right. We will delve deeper into these matchups as we examine the first round battle between the 3 and 6 seeds in the rugged Western Conference. Portland clocks in as 5.5-point favorites in game 1, which will be played in Portland where the Blazers notched an impressive mark of 28-13 this season.
Backcourts: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum vs. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday
One unique factor in this matchup is that both backcourts are essentially comprised of interchangeable point guards and combo guards. Damian Lillard functions as the 1 and McCollum as the 2, but it is really semantics as McCollum’s usage rate and passing rivals that of most starting point guards. Similarly, Holiday was once a starting point guard before the addition of Rondo, and he covers up to 3 or 4 positions at times, rotating onto the opponent’s best offensive player on a nightly basis.
The differences between these backcourts are stark though. Lillard and McCollum are lights-out shooters while Rondo is hardly that. Holiday can drill the triple, but Rondo’s shooting gives the Pels a slight handicap in this showdown of two great, but very different, backcourts.
Frontcourts: Evan Turner/Al Farouq-Aminu/Jusuf Nurkic vs. E’Twaun Moore/Anthony Davis/Emeka Okafor
The headliner for both teams at the 3/4/5 spots is, of course, Davis. He is coming off the most impressive stretch of basketball of his career, and he seems primed to finally win in the postseason. The No. 6 seed will serve as the highest obtained by Brow thus far, as his previous appearance the Pelicans snuck in as an 8-seed. Can Nurkic at least slow Davis?
Portland plays Nurkic just 26.4 minutes per game, partly due conditioning and partly due to foul trouble. The 7-foot center posted 14.3 points, nine rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field in 2018-19, but the Blazers are thin behind him in the rotation.
Meyers Leonard is limited defensively, and Ed Davis is known to be mostly a scorer, too. Behind that, Zach Collins lacks experience. Meanwhile, the Pelicans trot out an ancient Emeka Okafor, who has played surprisingly well in front of the young and athletic Cheick Diallo in the second unit. The Blazers also suffer from Evan Turner’s “Dribblitis,” and he is truly a player better off the bench at any rate.
Look for Maurice Harkless to get some time at the 4-spot if Portland tries to go a little smaller and force the Pelicans hand in getting the slow-footed Okafor out of the game. Davis is so much better than Nurkic and Aminu, however, that whichever sees the majority of the time covering him is likely in for nothing short of a major headache.
The Blazers’ sole biggest knock this season was its lack of depth. First of all, only three players averaged more than 30 minutes per game, but also only three players even averaged double-figure scoring. Shabazz Napier proved to be an effective and shocking replacement while Lillard nursed some injuries this season, and when the Blazers want to they can put three point guards on the court at once with Napier seeing time alongside the starting backcourt.
McCollum then functions as a 3, and we could see this lineup a lot given New Orleans’ overwhelming weakness at the wing where it has to play guards, basically. Overall, the Pelicans have a soft bench, too, but the Blazers may have the worst second unit in the league. Calling on the likes of Maurice Harkless to be an offensive savior could be a huge black mark for Portland in second and third quarters, and unless Ed Davis has something of a Renaissance in this series the Pels’ reserves could really make a difference in this series.
The Bottom Line:
Davis has been primed for his first playoff series win. Lillard is playing the best ball of his career. Those two headlines the show. But beyond that, the Pelicans simply have a better-rounded team, and Portland played its starters huge minutes down the stretch of the season to secure the No. 3 seed. Of course, that does give the Blazers homecourt advantage in the series, but we think the Pelicans manage to upset them due to its better balance and superior reserves. Of course, this is discounting Lillard possibly just absolutely erupting in this series, especially at home. But even that might not be enough for Portland.
Prediction: Pelicans in 6
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