“In The Scope With Joshua M. Hicks” is a weekly column from the Managing Editor of WARR
As we get deeper into the first round of the NBA playoffs it seems like this year’s slate of conference-deciding series will be more than a waiting game for an expected Cleveland-Golden State Finals rematch.
In fact, given the infusion of new talents out West and over East and the unexpected exciting competition arising from their crashing the playoff party, this year’s postseason could be one for the ages.
Within the Eastern Conference, the 3-seeded Philadelphia 76ers have established themselves as one of the hottest teams in the league and many critics believe they have a good chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals where they could play the King of the East LeBron James and his Cavaliers.
In the West, the Warriors are trying to get through life without Steph Curry, salvaging him for a possible conference finals clash with the Houston Rockets, motivated to win now and led by soon-to-be MVP James Harden and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, who are making noise as potential favorites and the best team built to possibly dethrone the great Warrior dynasty.
While Houston deserves any and all attention coming their way, I’d rather devote this space currently to the West’s dark-horse team and the team most solidly placing themselves in the 2nd round already — the New Orleans Pelicans.
In the regular season, the Pelicans looked bound for a breakthrough playoff season while touting one of the best big man duos in NBA history with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, but in late January, Cousins went down with a torn Achilles, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Many people questioned whether AD can lead this team to the playoffs in a tough conference, but the Pelicans have followed AD’s leadership, rising above expectations and finishing sixth in the Western Conference, making the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Matched up against Portland, who elevated themselves out of the gridlock of the bottom half of the West’s playoff standings to comfortably sit at No. 3 in the conference by regular season’s end, many predicted predicted the Trail Blazers to win this series. However, the Pelicans have been winning against the odds and have a 3-0 series lead, something that should not be surprising.
We all know AD is going to bring his “A” game every time he steps on the court, he is currently averaging 25 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks a game in this series, but really making a difference is the contributing role-play of Nikola Mirotic, whose mid-season acquisition from the Bulls has meant a lot, and the aggressive two-way play of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo out the backcourt.
Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have touted themselves as one of the deadliest backcourt combinations in the game, but they have shut down by the smothering defensive play of Holiday and oh so dangerous “Playoff” Rondo. Lillard and McCollum averaged 48 points a game, shooting above 45 percent from the field and close to 40 percent from the three during the regular season, but in this series they are only combining for 39 points a game. Lillard is experiencing the most glaring setbacks, only shooting 32 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three.
Rondo and Holiday have been also controlling the offense tempo in the game to counteract the offensive game AD brings. Rondo has been the playoff point guard we have always seen since his days in Boston, being an aggressive perimeter defender, controlling the tempo of the game and averaging 10 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in the process. Holiday has been on a scoring tear, showing people why he is putting his name in the debate as one of the top two-way players in the West and recently got that big contract this past summer by averaging 25 points along with five assists and four rebounds on 55 percent shooting from the field.
But the key X-factor for the Pelicans has showed consistency in both of their series wins. Mirotic is contributing 15 points and three blocks a game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from three, his 30 points in Game 3 paced New Orleans.
The Pelicans have proven that they are not the Pelicans of old, a team that struggled to win games against the top teams in the conference like they did in 2015 after getting swept by the Warriors in the first round.
This team is more mature, poised and with the big three of AD, Rondo and Holiday and their veteran experience and leadership they are defying all expectations without another difference maker in Boogie Cousins. Do not be surprised if New Orleans advances to the semi-finals and make for a very competitive series against the Warriors.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Chicago-based sports writer and broadcaster, follow him on Twitter @jhicks042; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio