Continuing our series of 2018 NBA Playoffs first round previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - After a franchise-best season, the Toronto Raptors should not be threatened by the Washington Wizards
READ: Part 2 - The Golden State Warriors struggled down the stretch, but so did the San Antonio Spurs, and only one could afford to
READ: Part 3 - The Miami Heat play relentless defence, but the Philadelphia 76ers might have just too many stars
There is probably not much to be made of the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers are the #3 seed, and the New Orleans Pelicans are the #6 seed.
To be sure, the higher seed confers home court advantage onto the Blazers. This gives them the edge in the series. But it does not necessarily make them better.
One game separated the third seed Blazers (49-33) from the sixth seeded Pelicans (48-34). Indeed, only two wins separated the Blazers from the eighth seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, and only one more win kept the 46-36 ninth seeded Denver Nuggets from sneaking in through the back door. The margins between those seven teams are tiny, let alone just these two, and considering how the Pelicans of now are so unlike the Pelicans of the start of the season a total body of work season record wrongly rejects a lot of context.
So with that disclaimer established; which team is actually better?
As a total body of work, the Blazers had a 109.1 offensive rating, good for only 15th in the league, yet they had a 106.4 defensive rating, good for as high as eighth (and, at the start of the season, far higher than that). The defence in particular was a massive improvement on the 110.8 and 24th ranking of last season, and is the main cause of the eight game year-on-year improvement. Were it not for an ill-timed four game losing streak in the final week of the season, that improvement could have been even greater.
They did so with largely the same personnel as in years past. The only differences from the roster that started last year's playoffs versus the one that starts this years are the subtractions of Allen Crabbe, Noah Vonleh and Tim Quarterman, plus the additions of Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, Wade Baldwin and Georgios Papagiannis, none of whom affect the rotation much. This large degree of continuity certainly helped justify keeping pretty much the same team together. Retaining the same core of players, combined with losing the fewest games to injury of any team in the NBA this season, is why this year's Blazers went 16 games above .500, and 16 games better than last year's.
Most significant to that continuity has been the chance to spend a full season with the talents of Jusuf Nurkic on the team. Inconsistency still marks Nurkic's game - there are some games he goes up soft, lazily misreads defences, turns it over every 14 seconds before eventually being benched for a lack of defensive effort. But when engaged - which happened more and more consistently as the season went on - Nurkic re-established the Nurk Fever that had followed his arrival at last year's trade deadline. An engaged Nurk is a huge figure on the interior at both ends, a dominant rebounder, a good shotblocker and interior defender, and an interior target who can finish around the rim or step out for pick-and-pop two-point jump shots.
To be fair, the Blazers went 18-8 after acquiring Nurkic at the last trade deadline, and were callously swept by the Golden State Warriors in round one because Nurkic was absent through injury. So perhaps it is not so much the case that the team around Nurkic has improved around him so much as his initial impact was no mere fluke. Nevertheless, there are some nights when Nurkic looks as good as pretty much any pure paint player in the game today. Which is good, because he is about to face one of the new NBA's very best.
Since DeMarcus Cousins went down with his season-ending injury, Anthony Davis has done ridiculous things. In 24 games since the All-Star break, Davis has averaged an amazing 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.5 blocks per game, doing literally everything conceivable for his team. Taking on the offensive role and responsibility of Cousins while also being at times literally his team's only interior defender, Davis was never ground down by having to defend opposing centres - instead, he ground them down by being everywhere, a furious combination of length and skill who could take any defender to any spot, finish any look created for him in any style, create his own with the dribble, and be everywhere on defence.
Whereas the Blazers have had scant few injuries, the Pelicans have had a lot, just as they always seem to have. Cousins is the most obvious one, but not the only one. Solomon Hill, last year's starting small forward, missed the first five months, and has been slowed since returning (particularly worrying since he did not have much speed to lose). Rookie guard Frank Jackson and reserve centre Alexis Ajinca will go the entire season without playing a game, and, before he was traded, fellow reserve centre Omer Asik managed only 121 minutes in 14 games.
Indeed, it was that Asik trade that saved the season. Dealt along with their 2018 first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans got back Nikola Mirotic, who promptly provided the massive infusions of scoring and frontcourt defence that the team so badly lacked for in the wake of all the injuries, Cousins's especially. A noted scorer and shooter, a much better defender than his reputation suggests, and a committed defensive rebounder this season, Mirotic has given the Pelicans a much needed midseason lift - the unsustainable three-point shooting strength he had for Chicago in the first half of the season has not sustained, but even if he still overindulges in the early threes, Mirotic is much more than that. And the Pelicans sorely needed it.
Between Davis and Mirotic, the Pelicans will, or should, be working to get Nurkic defending in space, whereby his foul problems will be tested. If they can do so, the Blazers' front court depth will be sorely tested, particularly until Ed Davis returns from injury. After a down year last season hampered by a shoulder injury, Davis returned this year with much developed upper body strength, and had his confidence back, only to get hurt again later in the season. Without him, the depth is lacking. Collins has potential as a stretch five and has shown it in spurts, but is untested and error prone, while Caleb Flanigan's toughness is a virtue but his status as a small ball post limits his usage, particularly against opponents such as these.
Neither team offers much on the wings. Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless (when healthy, although he may miss this series) and Evan Turner offer some defence on the wing and some occasional offensive game, but none of it to any great effect, while the Pelicans have so few wing forwards on their team that they decided to just not bother. Relying instead on a plethora of guards, the Pelicans have started a three-guard line-up for the majority of the season.
Featuring enigmatic, inconsistent, occasionally special eclectic veteran Rajon Rondo at point, chronic backdoor cutter and surprisingly good post-up threat Jrue Holiday as the pointish guard, and the 50.8% shooting perma-finisher that is E'Twaun Moore as a third guard, the Pelicans have adapted their season to fit their personnel. They haven't many guards (especially after trading away tenured veteran Dante Cunningham at the deadline, at his behest), so they ran with what they have, starting three guards, running and cutting, playing with great pace and space, eschewing offensive rebounds, sporting the fastest tempo in the league, and making an advantage out of a necessity. Backed up by mini-Moore Ian Clark (whose strong second half has given way to recent injury, and who will be needed to get healthy again soon), the Pelicans figured out their identity, added Mirotic to it, and rode that combination to their best season in nine years.
Of course, when it comes to guard play, Portland have plenty to offer themselves. 2018 NBA All-Star Damian Lillard had a strong year, playing with more team-friendly offensive fluidity than in years past while still ranking fourth in the league in scoring and while significantly stepping up his defence. (He had to - after all, he could only demand such of Nurkic if he was doing it himself.) Still not one for forcing turnovers, on a team that does not prioritise it either, Lillard instead does a better job now of ensuring he stays in the play, and has lost none of the ridiculous shot making talent that has defined his career to date. C.J. McCollum alongside him came up a mere 77 points of a 3,000 point regular season, with a step-back not far short of that of James Harden. And Shabazz Napier stepped up significantly this season, going from mere pesky defender to important and impactful third guard on both ends. The Pelicans may employ more guard options, but they do not employ better ones than these.
In short, expect this match-up of guards to come to the fore in this series. Expect Davis to be ridiculous. Expect Nurkic to counter, fouls permitting. Expect little forward play. Expect one of the league's better three-point shooting teams (as the Pelicans have been post-deadline) to run headlong into one of the league's better three-point shooting defences (as the Blazers have been all year). Expect Davis and Lillard to perform incredible scoring feats. Expect Holiday and Nurkic's successes in their own match-ups to be vital in their important roles as second options. Expect McCollum and Mirotic to be excellent third fiddles. Expect a close run series.
And thereafter, expect nothing. Ignore the seedings. This one should be close.