The Western Conference’s most surprising series changed venues from Tuesday to Thursday, but the shift from Pacific to Central time didn’t alter the basic truths at its heart.
The Portland Trail Blazers can’t score when the New Orleans Pelicans sell out to suffocate All-Star point guard Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll. The Blazers can’t stop the Pelicans’ pace-and-space offense, or offer anything more than token resistance against the awe-inspiring Anthony Davis.
And the Pelicans, overflowing with confidence after two impressive wins in Portland’s gym, just refuse to stop beating the hell out of the Blazers, rendering seedings irrelevant and proving predictions laughable as they stampede their way toward a sweep that would’ve seemed downright stunning a week ago, but now seems more like just a matter of time.
After about six minutes of level-checking sparring, the Pelicans resumed their unsparing destruction of the West’s No. 3 seed, ripping off a rampaging 20-4 run to close the first quarter and never looking back. New Orleans led by double figures for the final 38-plus minutes of game time, by at least 20 for most of the second half, and by 30 when Alvin Gentry finally called off the dogs — with seven minutes still left in the fourth quarter — before the teams’ reserves finished off a 119-102 win.
Sixth-seeded New Orleans now holds a commanding 3-0 lead in its best-of-seven opening-round series. The Pelicans can sweep the Blazers out of the postseason — and earn New Orleans’ first trip to Round 2 in a decade, back when they were still called the Hornets — in Game 4 at Smoothie King Center on Saturday.
If you want a general idea of how Thursday felt, well, here you go:
R.I.P. City: Pelicans blow out Trailblazers to take 3-0 series lead pic.twitter.com/MnZNvHSAe4
— Michael DeMocker (@MichaelDeMocker) April 20, 2018
In Game 1, Davis dominated Portland. In Game 2, it was Jrue Holiday — something of a forgotten man after years of injuries, but a max-level point guard in his own right who enjoyed a breakout season before embarking on a breakout series — who shined brightest. In Thursday’s Game 3, it was Nikola Mirotic’s turn to step into the spotlight, so it’s a good thing he shaved:
The Pelicans picked up Mirotic from the Chicago Bulls in February, shortly after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles tear, in hopes that the floor-spacing power forward would add punch to an offense that had sputtered in Cousins’ absence, and help a New Orleans team that was fighting for its postseason life stay afloat in the race for a Western Conference playoff berth. While his individual numbers didn’t pop off the page after his arrival in the Big Easy, his impact on the team was clear.
With defenders forced to respect his shooting beyond the 3-point arc, Davis, Holiday and Rajon Rondo suddenly had more room to maneuver on the interior. That elevated New Orleans’ offense to scary levels when Mirotic shared the floor with the Pels’ other top weapons. He also provided a surprisingly stout defensive compliment to Davis, equally capable of muscling up in the post against opposing centers and moving his feet to stay with smaller opponents on the perimeter.
On Thursday, though, Mirotic wasn’t just the complimentary facilitator of others’ excellence. He torched the Blazers early and often, inside and out, en route to a career-playoff-high 30 points on pristine 12-for-15 shooting, including a 4-for-6 mark from 3-point land, in 30 minutes of work.
The Montenegro-born big man also pulled down eight rebounds, snagged three steals, dished a pair of assists and blocked a shot, continuing to provide high-level contributions all over the floor for a Pelicans team that has absolutely clicked into place since his introduction into the lineup 2 1/2 months ago … and that, for whatever reason, has reached a new level of fearsomeness ever since he took a weed-wacker to his signature beard in the final week of the season.
Nikola Mirotic said his teammates won't allow him in the locker room if his face isn't clean shaven.
— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) April 20, 2018
While Mirotic led the way, Davis once again did a lot of everything. The All-NBA game-breaker busted up every defender Terry Stotts could throw at him, and continued his menacing work looming behind the initial defenders on every Lillard and C.J. McCollum pick-and-roll and dribble handoff, short-circuiting Portland’s every movement with the constant threat of eventual erasure.
Davis finished with 28 points — many of which came on soaring, emphatic, crushing dunks — on 11-for-18 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocks in 35 minutes. Just another day at the office for a player sure to finish in the top five in MVP voting for the second time in his career.
No matter what the Blazers have tried in terms of matching up with the Davis-Mirotic front line, nothing has worked. The big problem: center Jusuf Nurkic (five points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals) can’t outmuscle Davis in the paint, can’t defend Mirotic at the arc, and can’t match the quickness of either. And while Stotts’ other, more athletic options — Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Ed Davis, Zach Collins — have all fared well for stretches, none of them have been able to consistently dampen the Pelicans’ bigs … which has been an especially significant issue given that Portland has proven utterly unable to make New Orleans pay in the backcourt.
Lillard is living a nightmare, right now, trapped between the length of Holiday and the resurgent Rondo at the point of attack and the quickness of Davis and Mirotic hectoring him every time he comes off a screen. He just can’t find the space to launch off the bounce, and he can’t burst past the big, physical Pelicans into daylight around the rim.
Lillard, a possible top-five MVP finisher in his own right, finished with 20 points on 14 shots on Thursday, but he never once seemed capable of grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck, as he had so many times during the regular season. He’s frustrated by something he says feels different from anything he’s dealt with to this point; something he understands, but doesn’t seem to feel capable of counteracting.
"They're making me give the ball up… this is different covers than I've seen in any point of my career." – @Dame_Lillard breaks down how effective the @PelicansNBA's defensive strategy has been #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/MsxcoMUAwP
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 20, 2018
Lillard was far from the only Blazer flustered by the Pelicans’ ratcheted-up on-ball pressure and opportunistic work in the passing lanes; Portland committed a season-high 24 turnovers leading to 35 Pelicans points. But the All-Star point guard was the primary culprit, coughing the ball up eight times while notching just two assists in 35 minutes of floor time.
McCollum led the way with 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting with three rebounds and two assists for the Blazers, while forward Aminu (21 points, eight rebounds, two steals, an assist and a block) continued to do his level best to match two-way firepower with Davis and Mirotic. But the Blazers, again, just never seemed to get in sync against a Pelicans defense completely committed to disrupting the pick-and-roll attack that’s been Portland’s bread-and-butter all year long.
Lillard and McCollum have thrived by beating defenses whenever they bring two to the ball; against the length, activity, execution and aggressiveness of New Orleans’ guards and bigs, they just haven’t been able to do that consistently enough to generate points. Moving toward a more isolation-heavy approach, in which Lillard and McCollum don’t call for screens but instead try their luck one-on-one, would represent a significant departure from Portland’s preferred plan of attack in Stotts’ motion offense. But against an opponent doubling the ball-handler on every screen and never letting go, it might also produce better results. At this point, it sure seems like it’d be worth a try.
At this point, though, it’s also probably too little, too late. No team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit in the NBA playoffs, and it seems much less likely that that record’s going to be broken here than it does that the Blazers themselves are broken. A week ago, Portland had hopes of being a dark-horse conference finalist. Now, they’re days away from an offseason in which the organization will have to make some difficult decisions about how this team should be reconstructed, and how that effort can even begin given a nine-figure balance sheet loaded with players who might be tough to move.
That’s the power of what Davis, Holiday, Mirotic, Rondo and the rest of Gentry’s charges have managed to accomplish in a week’s time: they’ve turned Portland from one of the season’s best stories back into a cautionary tale, all by virtue of their ruthless attention to detail and relentless execution of a smart game plan on both ends of the floor. It’s been remarkable to watch, and you can bet it’s got the rest of the Western Conference — including the Golden State Warriors, who also took a 3-0 lead in their opening-round series on Thursday, and who are staring down a matchup with these Pelicans in Round 2 that might not feature Stephen Curry in the early going — taking notice.
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