The New Orleans Pelicans completed the four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, 131-123, in record-breaking fashion, pulling off arguably the most shocking postseason sweep since the Dallas Mavericks’ second-round demolition of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011 en route to their first NBA championship. The Pelicans will face the winner of the Warriors-Spurs series in the second round, which means they will most likely face Golden State in a postseason series for the first time since 2015. Here are three takeaways from New Orleans’ resounding victory.
Anthony Davis Picked the Perfect Time for a Signature Game
The Brow is elemental to every single Pelicans possession. Less than a handful of players attract the level of attention that he does. He creates avenues that could not exist otherwise, and he absolves mistakes by his teammates. Yet, you could make the case, as I have all series, that he wasn’t the most noteworthy Pelican on the floor in any of the first three games. Jrue Holiday had his claws all over Game 1; Rajon Rondo controlled Game 2 with his mind; Nikola Mirotic unlocked a different tier of two-way play in Game 3. Of course, we tend to judge players relative to what we expect from them. Davis, from games 1 through 3, was simply being himself, but because the state of play had been raised by nearly every single one of his teammates, AD’s typical brilliance became something akin to white noise.
Game 4 was different. With his 47 points (15-of-24 shooting overall, 2-of-4 from 3, and 15-of-17 from the free throw line), Davis set both personal and franchise playoff scoring highs, and is now at the top of the single-game leaderboard for the 2018 postseason as a whole. Arguably the most unstoppable play in the Pelicans offense takes more from the Saints playbook than anything Alvin Gentry has in his back catalog. Call it an automatic pass interference; those long-distance lobs to a charging Davis downcourt were the easiest way to get the team into foul trouble and AD to the line. He made a living at the line, and reminded the league of how impossible a cover he can be—especially when he’s hitting 3s from the top of the arc. The inevitable battle between Kevin Durant and Davis on both ends of the floor will be appointment viewing—and could tell us a lot about the future of the league.
Jrue Holiday Is This Year’s Mike Conley Jr. … and He Isn’t Finished
My favorite playoff game of last year’s postseason occurred in the first round: Game 4 of the Grizzlies-Spurs series was an all-timer, a back-and-forth affair between two stars (Mike Conley Jr. and Kawhi Leonard).
Holiday, long a player content to do the dirty work in the shadows, is having his Cinderella moment, and watching as an entire basketball-viewing public reckons with the player he’s become feels akin to the feeling of watching Conley take over the second-best team in basketball last year. After setting a career playoff scoring high in Game 2 with 33 points, Holiday raised his own bar by dropping 41 points on Saturday, shooting an unfathomable 65 percent from the field. Holiday’s herculean two-way efforts serve to only highlight the lack of utility a player like Lillard brings when he’s knocked off his perch. He never forgot the value of winning a 50-50 ball, he never conserved energy on defense to give himself extra juice on offense (though, in all honesty, against the combo of Lillard and McCollum, maybe he didn’t need to). The Pelicans, around their superstar, have managed to collect a handful of players doing what you need to do in the playoffs to survive: Be a star in your role. Playoff Rondo and Mirotic are important, but if Playoff Holiday continues at this pace, it could completely upend what we think we know about the best perimeter players in the league. In the final game of the series, the Pelicans supporting cast receded, allowing their two biggest stars to carry them home.
Damian Lillard Has a New Reputation, and He Can’t Shake It Fast Enough
It’s been less than four years since the shot that would come to define Lillard’s career: His buzzer-beating series clincher against the Houston Rockets in Portland remains the first of its kind since John Stockton’s game-winner against the Rockets in 1997. He’s hit an impressive amount of clutch shots both before and after that moment. He has the wrist tap. The idea of Lillard in the clutch is so pervasive, so central to his identity, that there was never a consensus as to whether we should be calling it “Dame Time” or “Lillard Time.” Why choose when he owns both?
All the campaigning and electioneering that Lillard has done this season to prop his name on the pedestal of the league’s most elite players hit a wall, and the resounding thud could cast a shroud over his career moving forward. Dame openly admitted to being thrown off by the defensive looks the Pelicans were showing him—they were coverages he’d never seen in his career. And despite the stakes of Game 4, it was more of the same. Pick-and-rolls were short-circuited, so they turned to isolations. But when those isolations were doubled, Lillard still couldn’t find the release valves. The entire Pelicans game plan was to eliminate Lillard from the equation, and it was successful for four consecutive games—McCollum’s impressive 38-point performance in the final game is immaterial. Lillard attempted two shots in the final frame. That was the only quarter that the Blazers won. Dame Time was out of order, and the team forged on without him. Could that be a sign of things to come?