• This is the first-round matchup the Portland Trail Blazers wanted. That’s not a dig at the New Orleans Pelicans as much as an indication of how strong the Western Conference playoff field is from top to bottom.

    There are some still clinging to the mostly bygone belief that the Oklahoma City Thunder have a championship ceiling. The Utah Jazz were a juggernaut over the season’s second half, posting a +10.8 net rating after the All-Star break, the best mark in basketball. No team makes fewer mistakes than the San Antonio Spurs, and the outside chance of Kawhi Leonard playing at a moment’s notice looms. The Minnesota Timberwolves, before losing the since-returned Jimmy Butler for six of the last seven weeks of the regular season, had begun separating themselves from the crowded pack below the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.

    New Orleans, especially after losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles in late January, is less threatening than those teams by comparison. The Pelicans overcame years of shaky roster-building to withstand Cousins’ absence and finish the season better without him than they started it with him. Alvin Gentry’s team was 27-22 when Boogie went down on January 26, and has gone 21-12 since, a 52-win pace. Still, there’s a sense in the NBA world that New Orleans is trying to find an identity after abruptly losing the one it worked so hard to forge before Cousins’ injury.

    There was a reason many thought Gentry’s job might be on the line after the Pelicans acquired Cousins at last year’s trade deadline. His teams have always been marked by tempo more than anything else, and pairing Anthony Davis with a lumbering, balletic behemoth flew in the face of that longstanding reality. With Cousins sidelined, Gentry has reverted to the style of his early tenure with the Phoenix Suns at the top of the decade, and later his time as Steve Kerr‘s lead assistant with the pre-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors.

    The Pelicans have played at a pace of 104.5 in the wake of Cousins’ injury, a comfortable league-high number four possessions faster than they played with him healthy. They are one of just two teams, along with the ascendant Philadelphia 76ers, to rank top-10 in both pace and defense over that timeframe. New Orleans’ defensive rating since late January is a fifth-ranked 103.7, an indication of both Gentry and his staff’s ability to promote relentless tempo without sacrificing defensive integrity, plus the influence of standout individual defenders like Davis and Jrue Holiday. Each will be in contention for All-Defense honors this season, and the former Defensive Player of the Year.

    The defensive presence provided by Holiday and Davis, individually and in tandem, will prove a major factor in deciding the winner of this series. No team runs more pick-and-roll than the Blazers. Damian Lillard leads all players by initiating 11.9 ball screens per game, and only Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving have been more efficient than his 1.05 points per possession on those plays. C.J. McCollum isn’t far behind him, creating out of 7.2 pick-and-rolls per game on 0.92 points per possession, good for the 78th percentile. Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner get their fair share of that action, too, but it’s the success of Portland’s stars in ball screens that will swing this matchup one way or the other.

    It’s hard to imagine a more effective pick-and-roll duo on defense than Holiday and Davis, at least in the traditional sense. Holiday guarded Lillard for a sizable majority each time these teams met during the regular season, and will surely be tasked with that assignment again in the first round of the playoffs. Lillard shot 54.5 percent from the field when being checked by Holiday, but there’s no assurance he’ll enjoy similar success under the microscope of a seven-game series. Cousins and Emeka Okafor “dropped” on most Lillard and McCollum pick-and-rolls this season, barely stepping beyond the paint to bother two of the game’s most talented shot-makers. The Pelicans will likely abandon that tactic altogether now that Okafor has been fazed out of the rotation, ceding his starting gig to Nikola Mirotic and the lion’s share of his minutes at backup center to Cheick Diallo.

    Lillard and McCollum won’t get looks like this anymore, assuming New Orleans’ defense is set and in proper position against an offensive attack that prefers to play in the halfcourt.

    Thirty-three players defended the ball handler in pick-and-roll at least four times per game during the regular season, and Holiday’s 0.71 points allowed per possession ranked lowest among them. He’s long and strong, with quick feet, active hands and a dogged demeanor. He’ll make life hard on Lillard and company no matter who is his primary helper in ball-screen situations.

    Conventional wisdom says it will be Davis. He defended Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis for the duration of his stints playing next to Mirotic in the Blazers’ dramatic come-from-behind win over New Orleans on March 27, and is certainly more equipped than any of his team’s other options up front to corral playmakers the caliber of Lillard and McCollum. But Aminu’s wildly streaky shooting – he’s 32.5 percent from three since the All-Star break in a career year – is a debilitating weakness for the Blazers, exactly the type of meta flaw that gets exploited by the opposition under extra scrutiny.

    Don’t be surprised if Gentry tries toggling the matchups among big men, slotting Davis onto Aminu and Mirotic onto Nurkic, opting for a more aggressive ball-screen coverage against Lillard and perhaps even McCollum. The Pelicans aren’t afraid of Aminu beating them from deep, nor his flailing off-dribble attacks from the perimeter. Why not have Mirotic meet Lillard on the other side of the screen as Holiday pursues aggressively from over the top, force a pass to Nurkic on the roll and let Davis deal with protecting the paint? New Orleans is probably even more willing to let Turner launch open triples than Aminu. It’s not like Davis wouldn’t have help winning that negative numbers game from pinching perimeter defenders, and he might not even need it. Nurkic has yet to completely abandon his long-time penchant for finesse finishes; the Pelicans will welcome him to pop after picks and shoot giddy 20-footers no matter how many he makes.

    That’s just one possible scenario in which the Blazers would miss Maurice Harkless, who won’t be ready until Game 3 at the earliest. He was on fire from three before before going down with a left knee injury and eventually requiring arthroscopic surgery, and has always offered more than Aminu as a playmaker when the opportunity presents itself. Terry Stotts could even take Aminu off the floor if Harkless was healthy and the former couldn’t buy a jumper, going smaller by sliding Harkless up a spot and bringing in Turner, Pat Connaughton, Napier or Wade Baldwin, the latter of whom flashed with Lillard out of the lineup in April and was suddenly granted real rotation minutes in the 2017-18 finale. Stotts even closed super small, with Aminu at nominal center, against the Pelicans during the regular season, a last-ditch in-game that won’t be available to him before Harkless returns.

    Containing Davis would be made more difficult with Aminu on the bench, but it’s not like Portland has much of a realistic chance to do so regardless. He scored 72 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, dished six assists and blocked eight shots on laughable 31-of-47 shooting (65.9 percent!) in his only two full meetings against the Blazers this season. Aminu was Davis’ primary defender in both of those games, but Nurkic spent some time on the MVP candidate, too, and acquitted himself about as well as one could expect from a barrel-chested giant with good footwork in short areas and innate defensive instincts. Nurkic fares fine against Davis on the block and in isolations. It’s on the move, in open swaths of floor, where his sheer size becomes a detriment, an unenviable position he’ll be in much more frequently than before considering Mirotic, red-hot coming into the postseason, is now starting next to Davis.

    “Everything: Mid-range, getting to the basket, likes to go left, got a fadeaway, got a floater, block shots,” McCollum told NBC Sports Northwest reporter Brooke Olzendam in March, when asked what makes Davis such a matchup nightmare. “He’s able to do everything.”

    The ripples of Nurkic spending a lot of time checking Davis are endless, and most of them benefit New Orleans. Pace slows in the playoffs, but that won’t stop Gentry from imploring his guards and wings to push the ball up the floor, and Davis might be basketball’s fastest big man end to end. Keep an eye on Nurkic’s wind. Ed Davis, at worst, is a similarly viable option against Davis if fatigue or foul trouble gets the best of Nurkic. Just like him, though, Portland’s Davis will be forced to stray farther from the paint than normal given the other Davis’ proficiency as a jump-shooter, leaving the Blazers without any threatening protection at the rim.

    That’s a problem in any basketball vacuum, but one exacerbated by the Pelicans shooting 51.1 percent on drives, second-highest in the league. Holiday isn’t Russell Westbrook as a penetrator, or even Lillard. Comparative athletic limitations make him a less explosive driver than other star lead guards, but no less effective despite a lack of highlight-reel finishes. If LeBron James, shooting 60.3 percent on drives, wasn’t owning the league in his 15th season, Holiday’s 55.6 percent accuracy on drives would be its best. Turner, underrated as an individual defender, will start on him, but Portland switched across the perimeter against New Orleans throughout the regular season, and switched one-through-four with Davis at center – whether Darius Miller, Solomon Hill or Mirotic was playing beside him. That cross match of Holiday guarding Lillard on the other end, and the Pelicans’ commitment to creating transition chances whenever possible, will make it hard for the Blazers to be so strict choosing their assignments during live-ball possession changes anyway.

    The perceived impact of Rajon Rondo has been a lightning rod all season long, but didn’t change when his actual on-court impact did for the better. New Orleans’ “big three” of Davis, Holiday and Mirotic has a +14.8 net rating in 241 minutes shared with Rondo this season, a small sample size to be sure, but one certainly big enough to note. That trio’s net rating is only +3.0 in the 203 minutes it has played without Rondo, a massive dip almost entirely accounted for in a defensive rating that spikes from a freaky 96.8 to average 106.9. Assuming playoff mode is engaged and he avoids getting enveloped by screens, Rondo still has the goods defensively to give Lillard, McCollum and Napier, and maybe even Turner depending on what Gentry does with matchups, some problems. Stotts will still attack him, though, and how Portland chooses to treat his improved jump shot ,and whether or not it falls, will also be telling. Inching closer to the timeline of Davis as a full-blown center spaces the floor for the Pelicans, but not to the extent it does if the opponent pays no mind to Rondo away from the ball – like the Pelicans will do to the Blazers’ iffy shooters.

    One game separated Portland and New Orleans in the standings, one tenth of a point was the difference between their stellar post-deadline net ratings and they split four meetings between them. Three of those games were played without Cousins on the floor, however, and none of them with Mirotic assuming the role he thrived in over the season’s last couple weeks. There’s no guarantee he’ll continue serving as Davis’ text offensive counterpoint, nor that Portland’s recent team-wide struggles shooting from the perimeter, open or otherwise, will extend to the postseason. Other than the individual excellence of Lillard and Davis, the latter of whom, make no mistake, is the best player in this series, neither team holds an advantage the other doesn’t have at least some means of answering or countering. Something largely unforeseen often sways a series that doesn’t include a heavy favorite.

    The most optimistic Blazers fans might be surprised to realize their team doesn’t qualify as such. But that late-season swoon is nearly as key a data point as that 13-game winning streak, and Lillard, for all his tangible and intangible greatness, just doesn’t affect the game like Davis does. Harkless’ absence and inevitable acclimation period make Aminu’s potential shooting woes that much more important, and limit the moves available to Stotts in a personnel chess match. Mirotic’s rise really, really complicates matters defensively for Portland. Will Nurkic be able to keep up if this series turns into a track meet? The Pelicans will hardly be dead in the water if it doesn’t, and realities of the playoff stakes rear their head in the form of slowed pace; Gentry’s team had the league’s sixth-most efficient halfcourt offense in the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass.

    Yet the Blazers, courtesy of that impressive victory over the Jazz on Wednesday, have home-court advantage, and perhaps more significant, the continuity afforded by a relatively healthy season and quiet trade deadline. They don’t just have the better closer in crunch time, but also a far more ingrained defensive system to fall back on when single possessions start to decide games. Barring an endless storm of triples from Portland, led by Aminu, this series will be very close. Good thing its final game will be played at Moda Center.

    BLAZERS IN 7

    *Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted.

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