NBA Playoffs 2018: Takeaways from Pelicans vs Blazers
Blazers in six was a common prediction for idiots like me at the start of their series with the New Orleans Pelicans. They had home court advantage, more playoff experience, and a more explosive backcourt. Whoops! Now the Pelicans are up 2-0 winning both games in hostile Portland. Portland is on the brink, and the Pelicans have controlled the first two games. How have the Pelicans done it and can they keep it up at home? From the Portland side, what can they do to get back in the series?
New Orleans Defense
Very quietly the Pelicans finished 12th on defense after a horrible start to the season. The Boogie injury simplified things. More time at center for Anthony Davis where he could protect the rim while roaming around everywhere and wreaking havoc. Jrue Holiday has returned as an all-defense candidate using his size and strength to make things difficult for opposing guards. Their defense kept getting better as the season went along and it’s peaking right now in the playoffs. Holiday is one of the few guards who can slow Damian Lillard down. He has the strength to fight through screens; the discipline not to fall for Lillard’s classic hesitation dribbles or pump fake and his length allows him to close Lillard's airspace. If he is beaten, Davis is there to help quickly. Davis is a rare big man who can recover in a flash and contest a jumper from the guard and then rapidly also switch back to his man. These two have caused Lillard to shoot 13 for 41 for the series and forced seven Lillard turnovers in game 2. Watch this play
At the end of the half in game 1, Lillard had the ball trying to run the clock out and get a good shot. Look how far Holiday is pressed upon him. He pokes away from Lillard, and Lillard luckily gets it back. Davis is lurking behind snuffing out any driving lanes for Lillard. Lillard tries anyway and almost gets past Holiday, but Davis is there to stop him, forcing Lillard to kick it out to McCollum for an awful shot. These two haven't let Lillard breathe this series, and it has been awesome to watch.
I thought Lillard might have some trouble in this series, but no one saw this coming, the Pels have been all over him. That is why I thought McCollum would feast in this series. However, the Blazers have started Evan Turner which gives a safe hiding spot for Rajon Rondo, and E'twaun Moore has been excellent this series on McCollum, even Holiday has taken a turn on McCollum. McCollum has been a little better and missed some good looks, but he is only 16 for 39 for the series. This is where the Blazers remind me of the old Raptors teams. Two tremendous and explosive guards, but their lack of ball movement gets exasperated in the playoffs. Portland was last in the league in assists and has been better in this series, but there are too many times where the ball sticks and Portland gets a low percentage shot.
The Pelicans defense deserves a lot of credit. In game two they ramped up their anticipation and were all over the passing lanes forcing 16 turnovers from Portland. Portland cannot afford to turn the ball over in this series. The Pelicans already play at a ridiculously fast pace, and a turnover usually leads to an easy bucket for the Pelicans. Davis is insane in the open floor and Rondo has done a great job advancing the ball with outlet passes. The most significant thing the Pelicans have done is take away Portland's three-point shooting. Portland is 24 for 71 from deep in the series, which is 33 percent. During the season they shot 36.5 percent from deep. Portland lives on pull up threes from the top of the key. Lillard has the best range in the league outside of Curry, and McCollum is a maestro shooting threes off the bounce. New Orleans has pressed up on them and taken away their airspace to get their shots off. Watch this clip
Lillard starts the play in the right corner. He runs along the baseline using a Nurkic screen to try to get a three in the opposite corner. Holiday swims Nurkic to get right past his screen and then recovers and blocks Lillard's three. You don't see Lillard get his three blocked a lot, just an incredible defensive play by Holiday.
With Lillard and McCollum being suffocated, the rest of Portland's offense has suffered. Evan Turner has been useless and is a -22 for the series. Moe Harkless came back last night and gave Portland a nice boost and I assume he will start in game three. He can help and is a better shooter than Turner. He can also punish Rondo more if he is on him and he is just generally more active. This is a tough series for Jusef Nurkic. On defense, he has to guard Anthony Davis, which is just impossible for him as it is for most people and on offense he can't punish Davis or even Nikola Mirotic in the post. He has been -13 for the series and if I am Portland, I bring him off the bench.
Portland's best unit to hang with New Orleans starting unit is Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu and either Ed Davis or Zach Collins. Collins has played well in the series and gives Portland a dash more of shooting even though the Pelicans are letting him shoot from deep. Davis would give a little more of a defensive presence and provide rebounding inside, but neither are ideally suited to chase Mirotic around a million screens.
Another idea is going super small and starting Pat Connaughton at the three, Harkless at the four and have him guard Mirotic and putting Aminu at center. Aminu is Portland's best option for Davis, and that lineup would give Portland some more shooting. However, that lineup would give them less of an edge on the offensive glass, which has been one of the best things they have going for them. It is worth a shot. In three minutes they were terrible, but I think it's worth a longer look.
Now onto the Pelicans on offense. New Orleans is getting higher quality looks because the ball movement is better. They are averaging seven more assists per game than Portland and their starting lineup has a ridiculous +35 net rating and 118 offensive rating. Portland's starting five has a fundamental problem guarding this group. Nurkic has to guard Davis because he can't guard Mirotic through all those screens. Mirotic, in turn, takes Aminu away from the basket with Ryan Anderson like range which leads to optimal spacing. Moore too has to be respected and is a great surprise cutter. This opens up Holiday drives and post-ups and room for Davis to rampage to the rim. Give Mirotic an inch and he will drill a three. Even Rondo has been opportunistic with his drives. Mirotic though has been the unsung hero. Watch the stress he causes Portland on this three.
Rondo pushes the ball in semi-transition and once he spots Mirotic on the left wing, he fires the ball to him. Mirotic is a good three feet behind the three-point line, but he immediately fires and nails a three. His quick release and range have put constant stress on Portland's defense, especially in transition.
It is no surprise Mirotic has been +31 for the series. Davis, as we all know would be unstoppable, but it has been Jrue Holiday who has elevated his play to another level in this series. Holiday is averaging 27 points on 54% shooting. Holiday with Davis in the pick and roll has been unstoppable.
Davis goes to set a side pick and roll for Holiday. Holiday attacks, but McCollum does a good job fighting through the screen. Nurkic comes over to help, which forces Holiday to take a tough runner in the lane that he misses. Davis though was lurking behind Nurkic and at the last second rises for the putback slam. This is the problem with guarding these two you can do a lot of things right, and they still find a way to score.
With Holiday in attack mode, Lillard doesn't have a chance. Holiday is too big for him. All the attention to Davis and now Holiday frees up Moore spot ups and cuts. Portland was eighth in defense in the regular season and they are searching for answers now. Their bench has outplayed the Pelicans, but with the starters playing heavy minutes that hasn't been enough to turn the tide.
The decision to not play Napier in game 2 was curious, and it was curious to bring in Wade Baldwin before him in game 1. I would bring him back in game three. The three-guard lineups of Napier, Lillard, and McCollum have blitzed teams this season. It is playable against the Pelicans. Napier should be able to guard Rondo or Moore. If Moore beats you in the post, you live with it. Napier was a part of Portland's best lineups in game one. As I mentioned earlier, Portland may need to go small more and just live with Davis rampaging, while trying to control the other guys.
New Orleans has controlled each game on both ends. Portland needs to make adjustments. For Lillard I would like to see him drive a little more and try to get to the line, Portland needs to get in the paint more. If the guards don't step up, this could be a sweep. Portland is better than it has shown, but the Pelicans have demonstrated they are better than people thought. Adjustments are needed, but don't be surprised if you see the same starting lineup in New Orleans for the Blazers. If you're the Pelicans, ride your starters as much as possible. Holiday needs to keep attacking and they need to go through Davis as much as possible. Davis running the floor and running to the rim is impossible to stop. Watch this.
Another pick and roll between Holiday and Davis. Davis can't get Aminu the first time on the screen, so he re-screens giving Holiday space, which forces Ed Davis to step up to stop Holiday. As soon as that happens, Davis recognizes it and darts to the rim and Holiday throws him a beautiful lob to for the slam. This is immense athleticism meeting high basketball I.Q.
Davis is a superstar who has now mastered the little things and is reaching the apex of his powers. This is a special time for him and a scary time for everyone else. He believes this is his time and he is playing like it. It is not over for Portland yet, don't be surprised if they win game three, but the Pelicans are dangerous and peaking right now. They are the story of the playoffs and boy are they fun to watch.