In a few hours the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans will tip off Game 1 of their first-round matchup in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Most of the focus will be on stars Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and rightfully so. The performance of a team’s best players is the surest indicator of success or failure in a playoff series. If everybody lives up to their billing, however, the tapestry becomes more complex, particularly among these evenly-matched teams. In the final hours before the battle commences, we’re going to examine the backdrop to this series and ask you to register your predictions of the outcome. To frame the issue, consider this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question.
How do you see the series playing out? At first I thought it’d be the Blazers easy but then I read your comparisons and now I think it might take 6 or 7 games. We’re the 3rd seed and we should win this but AD scares me and some of the match ups look closer than I thought. Almost winning 50 and getting the 3 seed should be a successful season but I’m nervous and I want this win too and then see what happens. How many games do you think it’ll take to beat them? I’m not even going to ask if you think we could lose cuz #RipCityOnTheyAss right?
So were Mary and Joseph, but as with that story, what comes after will illuminate the significance...or not. Being “OnTheyAss” isn’t the point of the story; what that journey leads to matters.
As far as the series length, I think you’re right that talent and matchups point to a semi-extended series, but that’s not really Portland’s style. Either the Blazers play fantastically or they suck. If the do the former, I think they can handle the Cousins-free Pelicans. If they do the latter, New Orleans easily has the potential to send them home.
One thing the Blazers will need to avoid is their nasty habit of doing both in the same game. They’ve learned to cruise through bad quarters, then make up for it with hot spurts. We can point to multiple instances where they were down 12-15 then came back to win, saying, “You can never count this team out!” That kind of team always ends up losing eventually in the postseason though. Unless you’re the #1 seed, by definition your opponent has chops. Getting down 12-15 against a competent, focused, talented team is different than getting down 12 against Sacramento on an average Tuesday night. Plenty of teams overlooked Portland in the regular season. That doesn’t happen much in the playoffs.
As part of the mental focus angle, I think the Blazers need to get over their tendency to congratulate themselves prematurely and be satisfied with things that don’t really matter. I used to think this was a side-effect of an organization dangling off the side of a cliff, then managing to pull themselves up to safety. Anybody is going to say, “Whew! We did well!” under those circumstances. A couple years on, I’m becoming convinced that it’s an organization/culture thing, and it’s not going to serve them well in a post-season where nothing counts except winning your next game and staying alive. In the playoffs you pull yourself up one cliff only to dangle off the other side 48 hours later. Self-congratulation is going to get you killed.
A few weeks ago, at the tail end of the big winning streak, the big story was, “We’re gonna win 50, and that’ll be a huge sign of progress!” Kind of, but not really. Name all the teams that won 50 game four years ago. Heck, name all eight teams that got to the second round of the playoffs four years ago without looking. 99% of us can’t...probably even among players. And then guess what...they didn’t end up winning 50 anyway, and half the Western Conference got as close as they did.
Now the crowing—including some from players and team officials—is about capturing the third seed and the division title. Division titles mean little. The most successful organizations don’t even track them publicly. The third seed is legitimate, except the Blazers are literally two games ahead of the eighth seed. Had they sneezed—or had they won 11 of 13 during that streak—we wouldn’t be high-fiving about their seeding anymore, but praying for a playoff upset. Meanwhile they’re still staring at $110 million in cap obligation without Jusuf Nurkic or any other free agents returning, about to embark on a summer full of unpalatable choices.
Against that backdrop, it becomes clearer that the Blazers NEED to win this series. Not only that, they need to put up a credible showing in the next one. If they actually made the Conference Finals, the overall picture becomes clearer and causes for celebration start to emerge. Until then, the hardest part of the job is still undone.
The rest of the job starts with imposing their will on the injured Pelicans, taking this series convincingly, then staring down their second-round opponent with determination and more than just pie-in-the-sky hopes. Using 49 wins, the three-seed, division title, or even a first-round playoff series win as justification for anything else is just pretending...playing dress-up like you’re a great NBA team. Pretenders get squashed in the playoffs.
This is a scarier matchup than most people think, in part because of the “higher seeding” illusion. The Blazers won 49 games, the Pelicans 48. Other than home-court advantage, what does the seeding really indicate about the difference between the two?
That very quality also makes this a great test for Portland in the first round. New Orleans is beatable; Portland should win. It will not be a cakewalk unless the Blazers make it so with consistent, sterling play. I’m banking on them doing that and I think they’ll prevail, but it all starts with them realizing that they need to do so...getting over the tendency to pat themselves on the back for things that don’t matter and realizing that the future of this team looks much different depending on which way this post-season goes.
Sticking with my original assumption that the Blazers either play well or they stink—betting that they’ll do well—I’m going to say Blazers in 6, leaning towards Blazers in 5. I fully admit, however, that outside of either team getting swept, all options seem equally valid, and that we’re playing even more of a guessing game here than usual.
Here are my keys, outside of the obvious superstar-driven performances from Davis, Lillard, and McCollum:
- Al-Farouq Aminu’s three-point shooting
- Portland’s rebounding
- Alvin Gentry is a bad coach, and doesn’t seem to adjust well
If the Blazers can get the Pelicans on the ropes a little, that third one will play into Portland’s hands. If they can also take the other two, this series will get a whole lot easier.
What’s your prediction for the series outcome? Game 1 is only hours away now. Register your thoughts here!