New Orleans Pelicans gear up for playoffs, take on Portland Trail Blazers

The New Orleans Pelicans have reached the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2015 following a tumultuous regular season complete with injuries, last-minute trades and a brow-shaving April Fools prank that shocked the basketball world. The Pelicans finished sixth in the competitive Western Conference, tying both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz with a 48-34 record.

The New Orleans team looked promising heading into the season, following the key offseason acquisition of former NBA champion Rajon Rondo and the resigning of All-Star shooting guard Jrue Holiday to a five-year contract. The Pelicans were enjoying a 26-21 record and were on track for its fourth consecutive win when DeMarcus Cousins tore his left achilles tendon against the top-seeded Houston Rockets this January, effectively ending the center’s season just one week after he was selected as an NBA All-Star Game starter.

Despite this potentially season-ruining injury, resilience proved to be the theme of the Pelicans’ season: after Cousins went down, the team won 22 of its last 35 games and cruised to a 10-game winning streak from February to March, matching its franchise record.

The most obvious source of such an incredible recovery is the Pelicans’ beloved superstar Anthony Davis, who became the franchise’s all-time points leader back in February. Davis averaged a career-high 28.1 points per game this season, along with career highs in all shooting percentages. He is currently projected to place third in this year’s MVP race.

The Pelicans’ success also stems from the heightened performances of Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and midseason acquisition Nikola Mirotic. These contributions, coupled with the team’s emergent chemistry, have the Pelicans in a great position coming into the playoffs.

If the Pelicans are to upset the third-seeded Trail Blazers, the key will be containing Portland’s All-Star point guard, Damian Lillard. Holiday will likely be tasked with this difficult assignment, but in the regular season he proved to be up to the challenge.

During a career-year for Holiday, in which he set personal bests in scoring and field goal percentage, the guard also took his defense to new heights. Holiday held Lillard to a measly 26 percent on three-point attempts, and New Orleans was able to split the season series 2-2 with Portland. Lillard’s bread and butter is his three-point shot, which he can create for himself off the dribble, while also finding open space for catch-and-shoot opportunities off the ball. The Blazers’ offense thrives off Lillard’s ability to create and falters when he cannot.

Holiday continued his strong defensive play in Game 1 of the series, holding Lillard to 6-23 from the field. He ended the night with a fantastic block with eight seconds left, in which he recognized a cutter heading toward the basket and switched off Lillard to make the game-sealing play.

Offensively, Davis will have to continue carrying the load for the Pelicans with Cousins absent from the lineup. “The Brow” carried over his MVP-caliber season play into Game 1, scoring 35 points with an efficient 54 percent on field goals. Davis absolutely feasted on Portland in the three regular season games he played against them, shooting an astronomical 65 percent.

The Pelicans return to New Orleans for games three and four this weekend.

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