PORTLAND, Ore. – On Saturday, every red, fabric chair in the Moda Center will be filled with a diehard basketball fan. Friday, the stands are empty. The Pelicans hold a noon practice session on the Trail Blazers’ home floor before their first-round series opener, just one day away.
Last time these teams met, the Trail Blazers scraped out a four-point victory in New Orleans on a 41-point performance from Damian Lillard. The season series ended 2-2, with each team splitting at home and on the road, sitting just one win apart in the Western Conference standings.
The upcoming games will be tight, and both sides know that a lot rides on Lillard, who has averaged nearly 30 points per game since the NBA All-Star break. Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday is among the most keenly aware. Although he will draw Lillard as his defensive assignment, he will need help to contain him.
“When you have somebody like Anthony [Davis], and [Rajon] Rondo, and Solomon [Hill], and Darius [Miller], and Emeka [Okafor] down there, it takes more than one person,” Holiday told Blazer’s Edge. “A scorer like that who can shoot 35-40 feet out and also get to the basket; it takes a team effort.”
As a whole, New Orleans is under added pressure to stop Lillard in the absence starting center DeMarcus Cousins, who will be sidelined until next season as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
In games where Cousins roamed the paint this season, Lillard opted to shoot from distance more often than attacking the rim, resulting in fewer free throw attempts, a lower field goal percentage, and, ultimately, markedly lower production—more than 5 points per game below his season average.
Even with perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis, without Cousins’ presence, the Pelicans have had to adapt.
“One of the biggest pieces of our team went down, so we just tried to figure ourselves out, tried to play our game, and from there just grew a lot of energy,” Holiday said. “Obviously, we got a lot of chemistry and, from there, just played very, very well.”
The Pelicans finished the regular season 21-13 after Cousins’ injury, including a 10-game winnings streak in February-March, and a five-game winning streak through the season finale, losing only once in the month of April. Holiday, a versatile scorer and physical defender, was a substantial part of the team’s success as the clinching clock ticked.
“We feel like we’ve been playing in a playoff atmosphere for a couple months now where everybody in the West is so close, so any loss here or there really felt like you could move out of the playoffs,” Holiday added.
But now that the die is cast, can he and the Pelicans prevent Lillard from blowing up the scoreboard again?
Lillard is playing the best basketball of his career, and his supporting cast has risen to, well, support him. As New Orleans knows, it takes teamwork to find success. While the Trail Blazers have chemistry in spades, their ultimate fate has always been tied to how far Lillard can take them. And who, if anyone, can slow him down.