March 27, 2018, 2:03 pm
OPPONENT: New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 43-31 (22-15 at home, 5-5 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 107.4 offensive rating (10th), 106.2 defensive rating (15th), +1.2 net rating (12th)
INJURIES: Rajon Rondo (wrist – questionable), Nikola Mirotic (hip – questionable), DeMarcus Cousins (torn achilles – out for season), Alexis Ajinca (knee surgery – out for season), Frank Jackson (foot – out for season)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 8:00 EST, Smoothie King Center (New Orleans), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports New Orleans
Last week could have doomed the New Orleans Pelicans. After a leaky roof on February 7 forced the league to reschedule the Indiana Pacers’ visit to Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans played six games in seven nights from March 17 to March 24. Instead of wilting under the pressure of minimal rest in the midst of an overcrowded playoff race, New Orleans fortified its place in the standings, going 4-2 over that relentless stretch of games. Its only losses came to the league-leading Houston Rockets, bookending a quartet of victories over the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Pacers and Los Angeles Lakers.
Anthony Davis led the charge, naturally, continuing to build on a burgeoning MVP case that’s even stronger than recent per-game numbers suggest. He’s averaging 30.8 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 3.5 blocks on 60.4 percent true shooting since the All-Star break. The Pelicans’ offensive rating over that timeframe dips 12.2 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the bench, and their defensive rating spikes 3.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats. Remember when New Orleans was a two-man team? Without DeMarcus Cousins, Alvin Gentry’s squad has become as dependent on Davis as any other in the league is on its best player.
That’s not to say Davis hasn’t had any help. Jrue Holiday hasn’t received enough credit for a borderline career-best campaign, and has been especially good in the 25 games since Cousins’ season ended with an Achilles tear. E’Twaun Moore is having a career year offensively despite being forced to check opposing small forwards on a nightly basis at just 6-foot-4. Sharpshooting forward Darius Miller has found his NBA niche, and Emeka Okafor, who hadn’t played in the league for four years until the Pelicans signed him to a 10-day contract in early February, has been able to successfully soak up some of the center minutes initially earmarked for Cousins.
Davis prefers playing with another true big next to him, but that didn’t stop New Orleans from trading for skilled power forward Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline. But he’s been unable to find the form that once made him one of the season’s most pleasant surprises with the Chicago Bulls, shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from 3-point range on 6.2 attempts per game in a Pelicans uniform. It’s unclear if he’ll play on Tuesday night. The same goes for Rajon Rondo, whose much-maligned on-off splits have been better of late.
No team in basketball has a faster pace than New Orleans since Cousins’ injury. They aren’t particularly efficient in transition with the ball, per Cleaning the Glass, nor very effective defending it when the opposition gets out to run. The Portland Trail Blazers are hardly the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers, but have clearly grown more willing to push the ball when the opportunity presents itself over the last few weeks. They can hurt the Pelicans there, just like they can in the halfcourt by attacking Rondo, if he plays, with live dribbles and screens on and off the ball – likely from and for McCollum, who he guarded for the game’s majority the last time these teams matched up in January. Spot starter DeAndre Liggins is a far better defender than Rondo, but less of a threat offensively; Portland can cheat an extra step or two off him away from the ball and go under on pick-and-rolls, making life far easier for defenders guarding the screener.
Stopping Davis is impossible. Al-Farouq Aminu will be tasked with trying, and if his recent play on defense is any indication, will at least force the favorite for MVP runner-up into difficult shots more often than not. But he’s just not long enough to really both Davis, nor will he possess the quickness advantage he normally enjoys against opposing power forwards. Davis will get his numbers, and Holiday will to an extent; the key is preventing the latter and his teammates from matching the efficiency that’s become so routine for the former.
If Portland can do it and leave New Orleans with a win, Lillard and company, currently two games up on the fourth-place Oklahoma City Thunder and a half game more on the Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs, will gain a firmer grasp than ever on not just home-court advantage in the first round, but the three seed in the Western Conference – and a potential date with the Warriors in the conference semifinals, who will have just welcomed Steph Curry back from injury.
Is that an ideal scenario? No way. But it’s certainly better than the Blazers’ likeliest one two months ago, and perhaps as good as facing the full-strength Rockets. Let’s see how bad Portland really wants it.