NBA Playoffs 2018: Pelicans steal two in Portland behind Playoff Rondo, Jrue Holiday and a cast of matchup problems
The Portland Trail Blazers and the New Orleans Pelicans didn't present your average No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup. They finished a mere game apart in the standings, and even that wasn't set until the final day of the season. Nonetheless, the Pelicans weren't a popular pick to upset Portland in the first round. With that being said, they're well on their way to doing so after stealing the first two games of the series in Portland. The Pelicans won Game 1 on Saturday night, 97-95. On Tuesday, they took Game 2 111-102.
And "steal" is exactly what they did.
In the final encounter of the regular season between the Trail Blazers and Pelicans, Damian Lillard dropped 41 points en route to a Trail Blazers 107-103 victory. That wasn't representative of a Pelicans' backcourt that has a serious All-Defensive First Team candidate in Jrue Holiday and an all-around veteran scrapper in Rajon Rondo. In Game 1, Lillard and CJ McCollum had 37 points combined. In Game 2, they had 39 -- and Dame had only 17. He was held under 20 points 14 times in the regular season. The Pelicans have been stifling, with the team not giving up an ounce of ground.
In addition to Lillard's point totals, he's shooting 13 of 41 on the series, and the only time it's felt like he's provided any semblance of a spark was on a four-point play to tie the game in Game 2 after a questionable call on E'Twaun Moore. He's become invisible for stretches at a time, and McCollum has been forced to pick up the slack, shooting 16 of 39. A backcourt that averaged 48.3 points per game throughout the regular season has been limited to just 38 points per game through two.
Holiday has two steals and two blocks in this series, including a monster block down the stretch of Game 1 that sealed it, with Holiday catching up to Pat Connaughton to put the ball back off the backboard in chase-down fashion. Anthony Davis has six blocks and four steals through two games, continuing what's already been one of the best big man years in recent memory.
There's an even crazier element to all of this: Davis didn't have to play out of his mind on the offensive end to win in Game 2. One of the biggest concerns dogging Davis has been how long he can carry the workload he has been for New Orleans. It was well-accepted that the team would go where he went. This game doesn't change that, but Davis put up 22 points, including a goose egg in the fourth quarter after scoring 35 points total in Game 1. The Pelicans were 7-11 throughout the regular season when Davis put up 22 points or fewer, and they never looked as well-rounded as they did Tuesday, Four of those seven wins came against teams actively tanking (Grizzlies, Magic, Hawks, Kings), two came against playoff teams (Spurs, Heat) and one came against the Hornets.
This may not be a team that's going to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but it's not one that's going to get swept out of it like in 2015 if it does close out this series. The Pelicans are a matchup problem. They're smart, they're talented, they're well-coached and they're putting the league on notice. But for now, it all starts with taking two more games at Smoothie King Arena and advancing. Now would be a good time to get that first franchise series win out of the way.In Game 2, instead, it was the Pelicans' backcourt shouldering the load. Rajon Rondo added a cool nine assists to his 17 in Game 1, in addition to 16 points (including a dagger three where he was left all alone outside). But the story was Holiday. He dropped 33 points to complement his usual incredible defensive play. Holiday was +12 on the floor for the second game in a row, and even when he got into foul trouble early in the second half he was still able to make his presence felt defensively.
The Pelicans were the third-worst team in basketball in points allowed in the regular season, giving up 110.2 points per game. That's 0.1 points better than the 29th-ranked Brooklyn Nets. You'd never know it looking at this unit, but a big part of it is in matchups.
Which is where we approach the caveat: This series should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, the Pelicans are exciting, and, yes, they've looked amazing in these past two games. But of all of the teams for them to match up with in the first round, the Blazers were the most favorable. Letting the backcourt struggle with Holiday and Rondo while Davis and Nikola Mirotic have their way with a frontcourt that has been dealing with a hobbled Maurice Harkless was the ideal draw for the Pelicans. That doesn't take away from what they're doing; it's just something to keep in mind.
And speaking of Mirotic, his shooting is a gigantic reason why the Pelicans are here. He's 7 of 17 from deep in this series, and his plus-minus leads the entire team at +31 through two games, in a series where he's played in about 40 minutes in both games. He had 16 points in Game 1 and 17 in Game 2, plus another six blocks through two games (four in Game 1). He was definitely struggling with an ankle injury down the stretch against the Trail Blazers, and the Pelicans will find life difficult without arguably their most reliable 3-point shooter (which would have sounded crazy to start this series) in the next few games of this series. But we'll wait for the results before jumping to conclusions on that.
All of this can be put into summation by saying this: Alvin Gentry has a squad of savvy veteran players that mesh, and he's learned to treat them as such. At first glance, the Pelicans are an island of cast-offs. The point guard that couldn't work with a coach. The power forward that got punched in the face. The shooting guard that wasn't part of The Process. All assembled around one superstar in Anthony Davis. But these veterans run a game that's both smooth and gritty, and it's translated to the Pelicans' first two postseason wins since they switched to the Pelicans in 2013.