Since the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans were announced as first-round foes in the 2018 NBA Playoffs on Thursday night, we’ve been taking a look at the statistical matchup between the two from various angles. Today we examine how the top five players for each team fared against the opponent compared to their regular-season stats. The Blazers field Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner. The Pelicans sport Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Rajon Rondo, and Darius Miller. DeMarcus Cousins and Maurice Harkless would have cracked the Top Five, but each is sidelined with an injury. Harkless’ return is uncertain; Cousins is out for the year.
Who’s had a track record of success against the opponent this year and who might have gotten a bad draw? Let’s find out.
The charts below show the regular season stats of each player next to splits against the specific opponent. All regular-season numbers have a white background, as do the splits that stayed near regular-season levels. A green background means the player significantly exceeded his season average against the opponent, a red background indicates that performance fell in that category.
The problem with the Trail Blazers chart is less preponderance of red than its targeted locations.
Damian Lillard played well against the Pelicans this year. His New Orleans splits reflect a truckload of extra shots...not necessarily a bad thing. But he attempted few free throws against the Pelicans and his three-point shooting percentage dropped off a cliff. In fact, none of Portland’s five top players reached their season average in three-point percentage against New Orleans. That’s a disturbing trend, especially for Al-Farouq Aminu, who will be challenged to make enough threes to keep the defense stretched. The .269 percentage next to his three-point split is ominous.
Jusuf Nurkic’s drop-off in rebounds, assists, and field goal attempts is to be expected, given the opposition. His field goal percentage was fantastic, which is what the Blazers will need.
CJ McCollum’s scoring dropped and his field goal percentage was downright awful versus the Pelicans this year. Like Lillard, McCollum’s foul shot attempts dropped around 40% when facing New Orleans. Curtailing Portland’s guards without fouling them is a major accomplishment...also perhaps a sign that the Blazers backcourt didn’t probe the lane much.
The long stripe of red under Anthony Davis’ splits is a sight for sore eyes. Inhibiting the opponent’s #1 option is the straightest possible course to victory. The corresponding “T” across three-point shooting percentage is another great sign. Of the three major New Orleans distance shooters, only E’Twaun Moore succeeded against the Blazers.
Massive performances from DeMarcus Cousins provide a huge caveat to the numbers above. His green alone would overwhelm every piece of red on this board. Since he’s not playing, the Blazers will dodge his 33.7 PPG average against them, but Cousins’ 24 field goal attempts per game took production away from everyone else, particularly Davis. Banking on Davis’ relatively poor production during Cousins’ post-season absence might not be wise. In the single game in which he faced Portland without Cousins alongside, Davis scored 36 on 62.5% shooting with 14 rebounds and 6 blocks besides.
The Pelicans might have a secret weapon in Nikola Mirotic. Acquired in a mid-season trade, he suited up only once for them against the Blazers. He went 1-6 in that outing and is shooting 37% from the floor, 25% from the arc against Portland this season. The Blazers hope that will continue.
New Orleans’ issues with the Blazers are more widespread than Portland’s issues with New Orleans, but Portland’s issues are more likely to re-emerge, while the Pelicans’ may have been situational.
As we chronicled yesterday, the Pelicans defense got slightly better with Cousins out, particularly at the three-point arc. Portland bothers New Orleans’ distance game too, but the Pelicans don’t have to stroke threes to beat Portland; the Blazers need those threes to beat New Orleans. If the Blazers can’t hit threes and can’t contain Davis, the Pelicans have a great chance in this series.
Nevertheless, as long as DeMarcus Cousins is eliminated from the equation, both Top 5’s did a good job against each other. Neither has reason for overt confidence or dread. The matchup remains intriguing, and will likely come down to who executes best rather than who has the natural mismatch over the opponent.