New Orleans gave us the first seeding upset of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, beating Portland 97-95 despite the Blazers’ best attempt at a comeback. Here are three takeaways from the upset that, because of Anthony Davis, wasn’t really one at all:
Portland’s Engine Was Slow to Start
When the Blazers offense isn’t running on Dame Time, it isn’t running at all. Portland’s prized backcourt limped into halftime, having shot a 1-for-15 from the field, 1-for-7 from deep, and combining to score three points. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both stumbled out of the gate to start the playoffs, and because of that, so did Portland.
Terry Stotts may have a better bench than the Pelicans, but the Blazers are dependent on Dame and C.J. to get the pistons firing. (Easy buckets around the rim aren’t so easy when Jusuf Nurkic is the one you’re asking to finish plays.) Anthony Davis was a bucket shy of scoring as many points as the Blazers’ dynamic duo combined (37). New Orleans is already starting the best player in the series—a flop out of the gate from Portland’s most lethal options is asking for a loss.
The Blazers edged back, because a broken clock still hits Dame Time twice. But with all due credit to the big shots who led the near-comeback, it had as much to do with New Orleans’s own blunders. The Pelicans weren’t doing themselves any favors down the stretch. Davis, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, and Nikola Mirotic all played at least 39 minutes and were clearly winded down the stretch. Careless turnovers, rushed full-court passes, and poor decision-making also led to Portland erasing the 17-point lead.
The Pelicans Are Basically a Two-Man Team
There aren’t any secret ingredients to the Pelicans’ success, which is built on the genius (and brow) of Davis and Holiday. The former is the offense; Rajon Rondo’s assists exist for Davis, as does the lane, and the paint, and the line, and everything else. He took all but one of New Orleans’s 10 total free throws. Without Davis, it’s impossible to imagine what their offense would look like.
And if recency bias lasted, Jrue Holiday just got America’s vote for Defensive Player of the Year. He forced Lillard into an off night. He swiped a crucial steal from McCollum with 44 seconds left, then clinched the win with this block:
After the game, Alvin Gentry said that without an active Kawhi Leonard, he’s “not sure there’s a better two-way player in the game” than Holiday. Per Second Spectrum, Holiday has defended 1,846 pick-and-rolls this season, good for the second-most in the NBA, and allows the second-fewest points per chance. Take that for data.
Jrue was also Davis’s wingman on offense, finishing with more points (21) than any Blazer. But his defense was the true counterbalance to the load of responsibility Davis took on offense.
Their Assist Totals, Themselves
Speaking of Pelicans guards, Rajon Rondo logged as many assists (17) in the win as Portland did collectively. Seven of the Blazers’ 17 were dished out in the fourth quarter.
Playoff basketball might be a different animal from the regular season, but Saturday night was a reflection of what we’ve come to expect from the two teams as far as sharing the ball. New Orleans, a top-10 passing offense that produces the league’s third-most assists per game, buys into ball movement. The Blazers average the fewest dimes in the NBA. Of course, one has to make shots for an assist to count, and little of that was happening for the Blazers before it was too late.