Usually there isn’t this much excitement in the first round of the postseason but this season is turning out to be one of the best in a while.
Indiana Pacers ending LeBron James’ Game One winning streak in the playoffs tops the list much like Toronto Raptors ending its streak-albeit a losing one- by grabbing a win over Washington Wizards.
Contrary to belief, the Eastern Conference has been interesting; the drama of Khris Middleton’s buzzer beating three point shot and eventual overtime thriller has given the conference an edge over competition in the Western Conference and the Sixers coming of age can’t be forgotten either.
While matters have been pretty straightforward in the tougher conference, New Orleans Pelicans have surprised just about everyone following proceedings in the NBA.
The Big Easy’s basketball franchise has swooped into Portland and delivered two crucial wins over home side Trailblazers.
This gives Pelicans a great shot at progressing further in the playoffs where defending champions Golden State Warriors lay in wait in the next round.
Like New Orleans, Warriors have so far taken care of business against San Antonio Spurs by taking two dominant wins at the Oracle Arena. A likely loss in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs will surely go down as the best season since the Chris Paul-David West tandem a decade ago.
Aside the Warriors being supremely good even without Steph Curry, the major reason-per many pundits- Pelicans are sure to exit the postseason is down to the absence of its second top scorer DeMarcus Cousins. The former Sacramento Kings man was a lock to sign a hefty extension with New Orleans after this season largely down to his great production on court.
Averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game was the perfect support star Forward Anthony Davis needed to get New Orleans to play to its potential. However, an Achilles injury ended Cousins season about two months ago and is expected to miss a couple of games in the new season before his return. Without Cousins All Star skill set, there was doubt about Pelicans chances of making it to the playoff since the team was stuck in an epic battle for playoff spots.
With Davis playing his way back into the MVP conversation, New Orleans made it as the sixth seed to setup a juicy series against Portland. While the series reeked of excitement, Portland was tipped to progress until the games actually began. So Pelicans stand on the precipice of outperforming expectations without Cousins which begs the question, can they still contend without signing him to a five year deal worth over $120 million?
Playing Trailblazers has had Pelicans deploy Davis at Center, Nikola Mirotic at Power Forward, E’Twaun Moore as Small Forward and Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo as Guards. This mobile unit has forced Portland Coach Terry Stotts to play Ed Davis and Zach Collins more than starting Center Yusuf Nurkic to contain New Orleans. Taking Nurkic-Blazers third scorer out of games for long stretches streamlines Portland’s already narrow offense around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
As such, Rondo and Holiday with help from teammates have doubled down on Lillard and McCollum to effectively shut them out of the series so far. It has been bad for the pair to the extent Stotts has had to lean on Pat Connaughton to attempt a shot with the game on the line after a timeout designed play in Game One. It must be noted with Cousins on board, such a unit won’t take the floor as Mirotic and Rondo will have to start from the bench. Before Solomon Hill’s return, Mirotic would occasionally fill in at Small Forward to little use as his slow pace couldn’t live with speedy NBA wings.
While Cousins is a good three point shooter-2.2 conversions per 36 minutes, Mirotic is better-2.7- and spaces the floor more for Davis and below par shooter Rondo to put defenses under pressure while driving to the basket. Playing without the defensively poor Cousins has helped shape the team going forward as a top defensive unit. Playing him and Mirotic in the same lineup prevented Pelicans from becoming effective as the team scored points on offense but hemorrhaged points on defense. With Cousins out and Mirotic paired against bigger Power Forwards, Pelicans have been bleeding less on defense particularly against Portland in this playoff series.
Cousins skill means he is very likely not to be hampered by the serious injury but checks have revealed over the years players production are not the same after an Achilles surgery. So setting aside a big chunk of money for a player whose durability is in doubt should force management to reconsider.
Besides, playing without Cousins gives Pelicans a shot at winning a game or two against Warriors like they did in the regular season since New Orleans smaller unit can deal better with Warriors switch happy system.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter