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NBA Playoffs: Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans Game 1 Preview

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The Blazers and Pelicans kick off their playoff series in Portland.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Pelicans (Series: 0-0)

Saturday, April 14th - 7:30 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Maurice Harkless (out)
Pelicans injuries: DeMarcus Cousins (out), Alexis Ajinca (out),
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, ESPN
Radio: 620 AM, ESPN Radio
SBN Affiliate: The Bird Writes

Here we go! After a long season filled with ups and downs, the Portland Trail Blazers’ first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans kicks off Saturday night from the Moda Center.

State of the series

Obviously we have yet to tip off, but both teams will look to get out to a strong start with a Game 1 victory. Before the game, make sure to check out some of Blazer’s Edge’s pre-series analysis. For a statistical analysis of both teams, check out Dave Deckard’s breakdown here. For a look at how the top players from each team performed in the season series, click here.

The majority of ‘experts’ seem to be leaning Portland’s way, and that’s probably correct, but this series isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Anthony Davis is playing dominant basketball right now, winning Western Conference Player of the Month for February and March/April. Davis is a brutal matchup for traditional big men, let alone the undersized Al-Farouq Aminu and less-than-mobile Jusuf Nurkic.

But Davis isn’t doing it alone. Point guard Jrue Holiday has returned to his borderline All-Star form while rounding into one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. Playoff Rajon Rondo is a real thing. Nikola Mirotic, acquired at the trade deadline from the Chicago Bulls, has provided a scoring punch and desperately needed support from beyond the 3-point line. E’Twaun Moore’s emergence has given the Pelicans consistent wing production that they’ve lacked over the last several seasons.

Of course, the Blazers have their own weapons. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic have carried the offensive load for Portland over the second half of the season, and they’ll need to keep it up Saturday night. The individual matchups will be tough, especially if Alvin Gentry continues to start Mirotic. That puts the Pelicans’ three best defenders (Rondo, Holiday, and Davis) on Portland’s big three. The Blazers will certainly be eager for Moe Harkless’ return to the lineup, but for now, they’ll need Aminu and Evan Turner to be difference makers against Mirotic and Moore.

The Blazers need to handle business in Game 1. The Pelicans know that they’re coming into the Moda Center as the underdogs and Portland needs to set the tone and show them why. If New Orleans is able to keep the game tight, or steal one in Portland, then all bets are off.

What they’re saying

Our friends at The Bird Writes break down what the Pelicans’ X-factor is going to be in the series:

If we’re talking players, I think it’s Nikola Mirotic. He’s been electric in his new starting role at the five and has done an admirable job of matching up with LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and others in small sample sizes.

With second units involving Jrue, Clark, Miller and Hill, Mirotic may be forced to fight with Ed Davis. Against Nurkic, he will need to use his body and instincts to help on cutting backcourt scorers, but above all he will need to focus on fundamentals. Jusuf Nurkic capitalizes on defenders who lapse mentally, or take risks to chase blocks and steals. He will attack the boards on every possession and use his footwork to slither into underhanded shots at the rim.

If Mirotic can continue producing offensively, lock up the glass on the defensive side of the floor, and mitigate much of Jusurf Nurkic’s effect, it will put that much more pressure on Dame and CJ.

Shaun Powell of NBA.com gives his take on what to look for:

The Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Jrue Holiday on the floor (plus-5.7) than they were with him off the floor (minus-7.9). That was the third biggest on-off differential among players who played at least 1,000 minutes this season. The bigger difference was on defense, where the Pelicans allowed 112.3 points per 100 possessions (a rate much worse than the league’s worst defense this season) when Holiday sat. When he was on the floor, they allowed just 103.1, and when he played point guard, they allowed just 100.6. Against Portland in the regular season, Holiday was a minus-20 in 75 minutes when he shared the floor with Rajon Rondo or Jameer Nelson, and a plus-18 in 74 minutes when they were both on the bench and he was the point guard

Kevin Skiver of CBS Sports shares what each team needs to do to win:

Blazers win if...

First thing’s first: You’re not going to outright stop Anthony Davis. What you can do is harass him. If Nurkic can body Davis up and give him some problems, he can keep the Pelicans’ offense out of rhythm, since it runs through a center. The last time Damian Lillard played the Pelicans, he put up 41 points. A fraction of that will keep the Blazers competitive against the Pelicans, but the Blazers will need to develop an inside presence to take on a large Pelicans team.

Pelicans win if...

The Pelicans can win if they help Anthony Davis out. Last time these teams played, Davis put up 36 with 14 boards and six blocks. If Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo can at least limit Lillard and McCollum with their excellent defense, they can make this an extremely difficult match-up for Portland. All of that mixed with the shooting beyond the arc that players like Niko Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore have displayed down the stretch makes this team a tough out.