There didn’t seem to be many lofty expectations going into the 2017-18 season for the Portland Trail Blazers. After finishing the season prior by being swept by the Warriors in the first round of the 2017 Western Conference playoffs, the assumption nationally seemed to be that while the Trail Blazers had some talent, they wouldn’t really factor into the race in the West in 2017-18, especially after teams like the Rockets, Thunder, Nuggets and Timberwolves all made moves to bring in top-end talent during the 2017 offseason, something the Trail Blazers were unable to do.
And when they were 18-17 at the end of December despite playing a home-heavy schedule in the first two months of the regular season, it was hard to argue that those assumptions were incorrect. The inspired play after the All-Star break that got the Trail Blazers into the 2017 postseason for the fourth straight season, sparked by the addition of center Jusuf Nurkić, was nowhere to be found to start the 2017-18 campaign. And while seeing their defense go from woeful during most of the 2016-17 season to Top 10 to start the 2017-18 season, it didn’t make up for the fact that their offense, which had never been an issue under the head coach Terry Stotts, was suddenly one of the worst in the NBA. They even lost six straight games at home at one point, something that would have been unheard of over the last five seasons.
But at the start of the new year, something seemed to click for the Trail Blazers, and especially for point guard Damian Lillard. While they hadn’t played as well as they would have liked to start the season, they also didn’t dig themselves a hole either, which was the case the season before, so when the tide turned, they were able to take full advantage. With Lillard playing some of the best basketball in franchise history, Nurkić returning close to the form that he had in his first 20 games of his career in Portland and the offense generally improving while the defense remained steady, the Trail Blazers were able to steadily make their way up the Western Conference standings after winning seven of eight games to end the month of January.
But the season officially changed when Portland managed to go on a 13-game winning streak, their second-longest in franchise history, while taking 15 of 16 games spanning from February 8 to March 15. That run allowed Portland to separate themselves from the middle of the pack in the Western Conference playoff race, ultimately leading to the team winning the Northwest Division, the three seed and homecourt advantage in the first round versus six seed Pelicans, a team that, thanks in large part to the MVP-caliber play of Anthony Davis, finished with 48 wins.
So let’s take a look at the matchup between the Trail Blazers and Pelicans before the two teams meet for the best-of-seven series starting Saturday night at the Moda Center.
FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE
NEW ORLEANS-PORTLAND FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE
Sunday, April 14
Tuesday, April 17
Thursday, April 19
Saturday, April 24
Tuesday, April 24
Thursday, April 26
Sunday, April 28
Rip City Report Playoff Preview
TRAIL BLAZERS TALK PELICANS
Damian Lillard on dealing with the defense of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday
“I think there’s a lot of guys around the league that are good defenders. Obviously (Rondo and Holiday) are really good defenders, really smart defenders as well. But I think there’s something to be said about how many times we’ve played against them. This is my sixth year in the league, I’ve played against both of them a lot being in the Western Conference and being in the league for six years. It’s always a challenge but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.
“I think part of it is making them work on the other end. Rondo handles the ball a lot, he’s a great playmaker, spends a lot of time setting up, running the team offensive. He’s such a basketball mind. Holiday handles a lot of pick and rolls, isos on the post and I think you make them work in those situations just to wear them down on the defensive end, maybe they don’t have as much energy. But also to run them off screens, make them chase you, make them guard picks and rolls, make them guard actions, take advantage of their aggressiveness as well. So I think there’s a lot of ways to attack it.
CJ McCollum on Jrue Holiday
“He’s good. He’s a very good player, well-rounded, efficient. He’s able to score in a variety of ways, very good catch and shooter — he shoots about 44 percent catch and shoot from three. He’s able to do a lot of different things. And defensively, he’s able to guard a lot of positions.”
Evan Turner On the matchup with the Pelicans
“I think we matchup pretty well. Obviously New Orleans has some great players and they’re well coached, but I think we match up pretty well. As long as we carry out and execute.
“Every single game teams were missing integral parts in a certain sense. I think we played them a couple times without Rondo and played them a couple times without DeMarcus (Cousins). I think both teams kind of were finding their way, in a sense, of that matter. We’ll figure it out (Saturday) but I know it will be competitive.”
Al-Farouq Aminu on being a former teammate of Anthony Davis and defending him now as an opponent
“Every little bit helps. I played with Darius Miller as well, we was all there together their rookie year. I know exactly who they are. Obviously they’ve been around the league for a little bit as well, so I feel like at this point everybody kind of knows.
“You just try to make it as tough as possible. He’s going to get his shots and everything like that, you just don’t want to make them be able to get them at his spots, going away and things like that that he likes to do.”
Jusuf Nurkic on defending Anthony Davis
“There’s a lot of good players in this league, he’s one of them, so it’s going to be a challenge. But it’s not impossible. People thought we not gonna be in the playoffs, we there.”
Maurice Harkless (left ankle) is OUT for Game 1.
Alexis Ajinca (Right Knee), DeMarcus Cousins (Left Achilles Rupture) and Frank Jackson (Right Foot Fracture) are OUT for the series.
Points per game: Trail Blazers 105.6 (16th), Pelicans 111.7 (3rd)
Points against per game: Trail Blazers 103.0 (5th), Pelicans 110.4 (29th)
Point differential: Trail Blazers +2.6 (9th) , Pelicans +1.3 (13th)
Field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 45.2 percent (20th), Pelicans 48.3 percent (2nd)
Opponent field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 44.7 percent (4th), Pelicans 45.4 percent (9th)
Three-point field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 36.6 percent (11th), Pelicans 36.2 percent (13th)
Opponent three-point field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 36.4 percent (16th), Pelicans 35.5 percent (8th)
Adjusted field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 52 percent (11th), Pelicans 54.1 (4th)
Rebounds per game: Trail Blazers 45.5 (3rd), Pelicans 44.3 (10th)
Offensive rebounds per game: Trail Blazers 10.2 (9th), Pelicans 8.7 (26th)
Rebound differential: Trail Blazers +2.6 (4th), Pelicans -1.2 (21st)
Assists per game: Portland 19.5 (30th), Pelicans 26.8 (3rd)
Turnovers per game: Trail Blazers 13.0 (8th), Pelicans 14.4 (24th)
Pace: Trail Blazers 98.8 (19th), Pelicans 102.7 (1st)
Offensive rating: Trail Blazers 106.1 (16th), Pelicans 107.7 (9th)
Defensive rating: Trail Blazers 104.2 (8th), Pelicans 105.6 (13th)
Net rating: Trail Blazers +1.9 (11th), Pelicans 2.1 (10th)
• October 24, 2017: Portland Trail Blazers 103, New Orleans Pelicans 93
Despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field and getting little from their starting backcourt in the first 36 minutes, the Trail Blazers beat the Pelicans 103-93 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,446 at the Moda Center.
The Trail Blazers are now 3-1 overall and 1-0 at home this season. The victory also extends the Trail Blazers’ winning streak in home openers to 17 games, an NBA record.
“Well it seemed like it was a struggle most of the night,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We had a couple nice runs here and there, but in a game that basically our defense won it for us, our offense struggled most of the night. We had a rough time getting it going, but we made plays when we needed to. I thought Ed Davis and Caleb (Swanigan) gave us a nice spark of the bench, as did Pat (Connaughton). Obviously Dame struggled, but we ended up doing what we needed to do.”
Even both Lillard and McCollum struggling from the field and Jusuf Nurkić saddled with foul trouble, the Trail Blazers were able to use a 16-1 run, powered in large part by the play of Davis and Evan Turner, at the end of the first quarter to take a 29-19 lead into the second.
But the Pelicans shot 53 percent from the field and 56 percent from three to outscore the Blazers by 11 in the second quarter to take a one-point lead into the intermission.
With Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins dominating on both sides of the ball, New Orleans managed to retain their lead going into the fourth quarter. But after three abysmal quarters, you almost knew that one of Portland’s guards was going to get it going in the final 12 minutes. And sure enough, McCollum answered the call, going 4-of-7 from the field, 3-of-4 from three and 5-of-5 from the line to spark an 11-0 run that turned the game in Portland’s favor.
• December 2, 2017: New Orleans Pelicans 123, Portland Trail Blazers 116
The Portland Trail Blazers fell to 13-10 overall and 7-6 at home this season with a 123-116 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in front of a crowd of 18,730 Saturday night at the Moda Center.
“Well, we didn’t finish the first quarter, we didn’t finish the second quarter, we didn’t start off the third quarter and that was pretty much the game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Between those three segments, they probably outscored us by 30, at least.”
Portland has now lost their last two games at home and two of their last three versus New Orleans at the Moda Center. The win breaks a three-game losing streak for the Pelicans.
It looked in the first quarter like the Trail Blazers might dispatch the Pelicans, playing Saturday night without All-Star power forward Anthony Davis (right pelvis), with relative ease. Portland used a 15-2 run, punctuated by back-to-back three-pointers from Damian Lillard, to take a 31-17 lead with 2:22 to play in the first quarter, giving many in attendance the impression that the Trail Blazers just might blow by a team playing on the second game of a back-to-back. But the Pelicans would make three three-pointers in the next two minutes to cut Portland’s lead to 33-26 going into the second quarter.
That scoring burst didn’t abate in the second quarter, with the Pelicans outscoring Portland between the end of the first and the start of the second to take a 33-30 lead. The Trail Blazers would end up getting outscored 34-24 in the second quarter and 43-26 after their first-quarter run to go down 60-57 by the intermission.
“I thought we had a good start to the first quarter, it was kind of flowing,” said Damian Lillard. “It was going smooth, it was an easy game at that point. And then they started to make a few shots and because of the shots we were getting offensively, we kind of counted on that and we let it become a back-and-forth game.”
It would get worse in the third quarter, with the Pelicans going on another run, this one of the 18-4 variety, to take a 76-63 lead. New Orleans would go up by as many as 19 before taking a 98-82 lead into the fourth and final quarter. Portland would do what they could to get back in the game, but never came close to getting enough stops to put much of a scare into the road team.
• January 12, 2018: New Orleans Pelicans 119, Portland Trail Blazers 113
The Portland Trail Blazers (22-20) dropped a second straight game on their four-game road trip, falling to the New Orleans Pelicans (21-20), 119-113, Friday night at the Smoothie King Center in the Crescent City. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led the Blazers in the defeat with 23 points each, while the Pelicans frontcourt of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 60 points and 28 rebounds for New Orleans.
Playing inspired against two of the NBA’s premier big men from the tip, Jusuf Nurkić scored 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field. Nurkić’s efforts, however, were bested by Jrue Holiday’s 12 points to put the Pelicans up 31-25 after one. Despite a 31-10 led by Holiday and Davis through the midway points of the first and second quarters that Portland trail by 16, the Blazers traded momentum with a 30-14 run of their own to end the first half and go into the break tied at 61 behind Lillard’s 13 second-quarter points.
The second half brought a more even-keeled affair, but it was the Pelicans’ shooting on their home court that decided the game. The Blazers had no answer on the defensive end for the Pelicans big man duo of Davis and Cousins, as the two combined for 32 second-half points A 6-2 New Orleans run from the 4:43 mark to the 2:04 mark in the fourth quarter gave the home side a six-point advantage that the Blazers could not overcome in the end.
• March 27, 2018: Portland Trail Blazers 107, New Orleans Pelicans 103
In what proved to be a battle of two 2012 NBA Draft superstars, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers edged Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, 107-103, Tuesday night in New Orleans. Portland has now won seven consecutive road games.
Lillard put the Trail Blazers on his back once more, scoring 20 of his 41 points (18-33 FG) in the fourth quarter. His 18 field goals matched a career high, and he added nine rebounds and six assists in the game. Davis tallied 36 points (15-24 FG), 16 in the fourth quarter, and a game-high 14 rebounds and six blocks in the losing effort.
“Like I’ve always said, the best thing about him is his will,” said Evan Turner of Lillard. “You always hear about him with the great players, but I’ve seen him at a crazy different level. In situations like this, in must wins and things, he always steps up. It’s unreal.”
Portland’s seventh-straight road win matches the third-longest road winning streak in team history and longest since Nov. 12-Dec. 9, 2014 (also seven games). The franchise record of nine games was set in 1991.
“We’ve been playing good basketball, particularly since the All-Star break obviously, but I think since January,” said Head Coach Terry Stotts. “We had 11 wins in January, and since January 1st we’ve been good.”
After another win against a rival team in the Western Conference, Portland’s hold on the third seed in the West is stronger than ever. The Trail Blazers (46-28) lead the Oklahoma City Thunder by 2.5 games for the third spot in the conference and the Northwest Division crown, and Portland also holds the tiebreaker courtesy of a season sweep completed on Sunday.