“The series doesn’t start until a team wins on the road.” — Alvin Gentry tonight in his postgame media session.
Well, the New Orleans Pelicans have thrown down the gauntlet to the Portland Trail Blazers. In the opening game of their first round playoff series, the Pelicans managed to hold onto a very precarious lead late and walk away with a resilient 97-95 victory.
That’s a word I’ve often used to describe this Pelicans squad during the regular season and for good reason. 30 of the team’s 48 wins came during clutch moments — games in which the point differential was five points or less during the final five minutes of fourth quarters and any overtime periods.
“We had some tough stretches in the third and fourth quarters, but you know what, we were mentally strong and we knew how to finish this game,” said Nikola Mirotic to Fox Sports New Orleans’ Jen Hale in a postgame interview.
Naturally, Anthony Davis first career playoff victory couldn’t be easy. With 4:25 to play in the third quarter, New Orleans had built an impressive 19-point lead. The offense was flowing, the defense was stifling and Portland’s sizzling backcourt couldn’t find their rhythm. Unfortunately, that elation didn’t last.
The Pelicans entered the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead, but it was cut to seven less than three minutes later. Although New Orleans grew the lead back up to 14 after a thunderous one-handed dunk by Anthony Davis off a lob pass from Rajon Rondo, Portland made another charge. This time the lead was reduced to a single possession of three points with 2:47 left to play.
However, the Pelicans didn’t wilt, and more importantly, they responded together as a unit.
First, Ian Clark splashed home an important three-pointer. Then Rondo read the defense correctly and drove aggressively to the rim for a lay-in. And to finish off the franchise’s most important win since — geez, this would make for a good debate tomorrow, Jrue Holiday and Davis sewed up the victory.
With 44 seconds to go and New Orleans ahead by just a point, Clark turned it over and Portland was racing up the court in transition — their best source of offense on the night as evidenced by a whopping 29 fast break points. Fortunately for the Pelicans, Holiday was in position to save the day, coming up with a huge steal of C.J. McCollum.
New Orleans offense, though, failed to capitalize and score on a third straight possession. Following a Trail Blazer timeout, Damian Lillard now tried to beat Holiday in isolation. He didn’t come close. Watch how Jrue smartly avoided Dame, who was only interested in seeking to draw the foul instead of focusing more on his runner.
Anthony Davis grabbed the rebound and proceeded to calmly sink both free throws — an act he repeated seconds later, to increase the Pelicans lead. Obviously though, Portland would have a chance to tie, but instead, they decided to go for the quick two as Pat Connaughton made a cut through the lane and had an open path to the rim…or so he thought. Although Holiday let Connaughton beat him initially, Jrue more than made up for his slip up, wouldn’t you say?
“To me, as far as a two-way player right now, with Kwahi Leonard not dressed out and playing, I don’t know if there is a better two-way player in the game,” said Head Coach Alvin Gentry after the game. “We ask him to try and get 20+ points a night and we also ask him to guard the best perimeter player on the other team, regardless of the size or who it is.”
On three straight possessions, three different Blazers tried to beat Jrue Holiday. One by one, they all failed. And to think, just over this past week we’ve read a number of NBA voices say Holiday is more fit for the 2nd All-NBA Defensive team, or none at all! Well, who cares. Holiday certainly doesn’t, and he told reporters as much after the game that he’s spurred on by the appreciation from his teammates, not by comments from outsiders. And yes, he did enjoy coming up key stops down the stretch.
“Yeah, it’s the playoffs, a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, especially in the building,” said Holiday. “Obviously, that was a really big stop, and at that moment, it just felt good to get a stop. It felt good to know that all the hard work we put in this game, we got the win.”
Without Jrue Holiday’s defensive abilities, the Pelicans would have in all likelihood suffered an incredibly disappointing defeat. Of course, a couple of these key plays shouldn’t take anything away from his line of 21 points and seven rebounds, nor from the instrumental contributions of several of his teammates — everything mattered because New Orleans was barely able to secure the win.
Let’s start with Anthony Davis, who finished with a game-high 35 points and 14 rebounds, and also added four blocks and two steals. James Harden may be the people’s 2018 Most Valuable Player but AD is my MVP. Guess what, AD is yet to individually suffer a poor playoff game or even an average one — by his lofty standards.
After six long, grueling seasons, Anthony Davis finally got rid of that monkey off his back — He just registered his first career win in the NBA playoffs!
“I think it’s very much important to him that we find a way to win, not just a game, but win the series,” said Gentry. “He said he’s going to do everything he can to possibly help this team do that. I thought tonight he made the two plays down the stretch — the rebounds that he came up with — were really, really important.”
Speaking of a player who did everything he possibly could to help the Pelicans fetch the victory, Rajon Rondo was sensational, posting six points, 17 assists and eight rebounds. While he struggled to knock down a single perimeter jumper, Playoff Rondo more than made up for it by guiding the offense beautifully, tracking down a number of important 50/50 balls and keeping teammates on their toes defensively.
“It was huge,” said Davis about the play of his point guard. “He had a different mindset. He was up all night watching film. Even when he was calling out plays tonight, he was telling us what it was in our versions before they even got a chance to run it. He’s definitely into it and locked in. The way he played tonight — 17 assists — getting guys involved, talking, making sure we’re huddling up at the free throw line, make sure we know where to go out of timeouts. He was in a different mode and he’s playing well. He played well for us tonight, and we’ll need him for the rest of the playoffs.”
Scoring against a Portland team with a strong playoff focus is no small feat. The Blazers were nearly as good the Pelicans at thwarting shot attempts, but Rondo was able to set up his teammates perfectly more times than not.
One huge beneficiary of a number of passes from Rondo was Nikola Mirotic. Niko wasn’t as efficient as he was over the final few weeks of the regular, but he more than did enough. His four three-pointers greatly aided the cause, as did his line of 16 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals and four blocks.
A one dimensional player.
A player who only plays well against bad competition.
Hopefully, we’ll never have to hear someone utter this type of nonsense ever again because Niko was as pertinent to the win as Davis, Holiday and Rondo. He was a hell of a difference maker from all over the court, which included being a big cog in shutting down Portland’s star backcourt.
“You’ve got to give credit to what they did defensively,” said Damian Lillard after Saturday night’s loss. “They were physical. They were up trapping a lot of my pick and rolls.”
Although I’ve largely focused on Holiday’s defensive effort up to this point, the entire Pelicans team deserves a pat on the back for holding the Trail Blazers to 95 points. Portland is now 0-9 on the season and playoffs when scoring 97 points or less inside the Moda Center.
“We’re all just excited to be here and be playing,” said Holiday in postgame. “We’re all appreciative of everything we’ve been through this season, and just to be able to get this first win under our belt, builds a lot of confidence for the next game and here on out.”
The New Orleans franchise hasn’t been a part of many playoff games, especially in the Davis era, but Saturday’s win has to rank as one of the most exhilarating. However, if this victory does indeed lead to a game two win or simply propels the Pelicans into the next round, this game one defeat of the Blazers might go down as one of the most important wins in franchise history.