The New Orleans Pelicans are not supposed to be here. The Pelicans entered the 2017/18 season with a lame duck Head Coach and General Manager, a frustrated superstar, an expiring superstar, a journeyman point guard with a core muscle injury, an overpaid point guard who didn’t play point guard anymore, and a bevy of mismatched pieces around them.
If anyone told you that they predicted “this,” then they’re just not being truthful.
Preseason Playoff Predictions
11th, 38, 44 - SI
10th, 40-42 - Bleacher Report
9th , 42-40 – CBS Sports
9th, 44-38 – ESPN
And then, the unthinkable happened. They put it altogether, culminating with a shocking victory over the undefeated combination of CP3-Harden-Capela on national tv, giving the Pelicans a 27-20 record and a fourth seeded stranglehold.
Until it all fell apart.
The Pelicans were doomed by the gods to fail, having already lost Rajon Rondo for the first 12 games of the season, Solomon Hill for 69 games, Frank Jackson, Alexis Ajinca, Tony Allen, Omer Asik and more to injuries.
And yet, here they are, 48-34, a sixth seed, winners of 19 of their past 27 games, including the preceding five heading into the postseason against the very team they were desperate to draw.
The Cinderella team of the NBA plays with pace, the fastest actually in the NBA, the fifth best defense (in the past two months), the third best player, the best perimeter defender, and a swagger that whispers in their ear that they can overcome anything.
The Pelicans are an open floor terror, having scored 34 fast break points against a San Antonio team that averages but 10 per game.
This team pushes the pace and doesn’t let up, and recently their rotations and help defense have been absolutely stellar.
Alvin Gentry’s decision to move Nikola Mirotic to the five spot on Monday and Wednesday looks to be a nod to his playoff plans. It has worked to perfection as Niko is averaging a sublime 26 points and 13 rebounds over his past five games.
Rajon Rondo has entered “playoff Rondo” mode, carving up the Spurs defense to the tune of 19 points, 14 rebounds, and his defense has picked up too. In addition to his four steals on Wednesday, he pick pocketed Kevin Durant on Saturday on one of the biggest possessions of the season.
If a team looks to slow down the Pelicans they’ll have to force turnovers, rebound, especially offensively, and limit the easy buckets. The Pelicans are first in the NBA in scoring in the paint after putting up 78 against the Spurs.
Keep an eye on Rajon Rondo. The Blazers will look for switches early and often, hoping to take advantage of Rondo. If the 32 year old point guard can’t keep up with Damian Lilliard and CJ McCollum, the Pelicans may be forced to play Ian Clark or even Solomon Hill heavier minutes.
The X Factor is Nikola Mirotic in this series. Jusurf Nurkic and Al Farouq Aminu struggled against Emeka Okafor, but once relegated to the bench, the Blazers big men inhaled every rebound that came their way. With Mirotic’s recent move to center, will he be able to box them out and keep Nurkic’s dirty hands away from the rim?
These two teams mirror each other perfectly, and it should be one of the more entertaining series of the first round. Expect this one to go a full seven as Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis look to raise their games yet one more level against one of the NBA’s most lethal back courts in Portland.