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Pelicans head into summer facing big Boogie Cousins, Rondo questions

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This Pelicans team had no quit. Not early in the season when the pieces weren’t quite fitting together, and not after most people wrote their season off when DeMarcus Cousins returned from an Achilles injury. With Anthony Davis playing like an MVP, Jrue Holiday finding his groove, and the addition of Nikola Mirotic to help space the floor, the Pelicans not only made it to the postseason, they swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

While they eventually couldn’t climb the Mt. Everest that is Golden State, the Pelicans have something real to build on.

But now they also face some tough questions in a Western Conference that has little margin for error:

• Do the Pelicans bring back DeMarcus Cousins? If so at what price and for how many years?

• Do the Pelicans bring back Rajon Rondo?

• Can the Pelicans add a scorer on the wing to balance the roster?

None of those questions have easy answers.

The Pelicans do want Cousins back — they were the No. 4 seed and playing well when he went down. Coach Alvin Gentry put it this way:

Is Cousins still a 26 and 12 guy coming off a torn Achilles? Probably not. But he still has value.

More importantly for the Pelicans, after this playoff run, the Pelicans don’t “need” Cousins back to win, and they know it. That gives the Pelicans leverage when the sides sits down. If Cousins walks they will struggle to get anyone as good in (they are capped out still), and they will have burned a good pick to get him, but this team just reached the second round of the playoffs without him.

On the other side of the table, it’s going to be hard for Cousins, who was going to get offered a five-year max contract from the Pelicans ($176 million over the course of it) before the injury. Now he’s not going to get a max starting at just north of $30 million a season, likely he lands more in the $22 million to $25 million range. However, the bigger issue being discussed around the league is the years — no team is comfortable being locked into four (or for the Pelicans five) years with him. Cousins’ best bet is two years and a player option for year three. If he wants to go that long.

Last summer, Rudy Gay was coming off a torn Achilles and got a two-year, $17.6 million contract with a player option the second year. While the money would be higher for Cousins, maybe he would bet on himself and take a one-plus-one deal knowing he could get paid next summer if he is healthy and shows he can still dominate. Or, the two sides could go with a longer deal that has some protections built in or performance goals, although that is far less likely to come together.

The advantage the Pelicans have: No other team is going to come in big now, either. Before the injury Cousins had options (just with one fewer guaranteed year and a little less money), now those teams — Lakers, Mavericks, others — will be cautious like New Orleans. There is nobody ready to throw max money cash or long contracts at Cousins.

Which is why he likely strikes a short deal with the Pelicans and tries to prove himself — and boost that value.

If Cousins remains a Pelican it limits what the team can pay Rajon Rondo.

New Orleans got him with what was a very good deal — one year at $3.3 million — for this season. Despite the flaws in his game, his price is going up, and the Pelicans want to keep him. New Orleans loves his impact on the locker room, and having Rondo at the point allows Holiday to focus more as a pure scorer sometimes working off the ball, a role he has thrived in.

Rondo is an unrestricted free agent. The most the Pelicans can offer him as a raise is $3.9 million, which will not be enough to keep him. New Orleans can use their $5.2 million taxpayer midlevel exception on him (which jumps to $8.6 if Cousins leaves because they go below the tax line). If another team comes in above $5.2 million, there is nothing the Pelicans can do.

What’s more, use that exception on Rondo and they lose an option to bring in a needed wing scorer. Mirotic helped fill that role, but the Pelicans could use some athleticism and defense on the wing to help round out an improving roster.

The Pelicans look like a team on the rise in the West, but they also could look different by the time summer is over.

 

Pelicans’ preferred pace presents dilemma vs. Warriors

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Pelicans’ penchant for pushing the pace looks more and more like a quixotic mission to out-Warrior the Warriors.

That’s been the dilemma for Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry as New Orleans has slid into a 3-1 hole in its Western Conference semifinal playoff series against defending champion Golden State.

Although there’d be logic to slowing the game down to limit shooting opportunities for Golden State’s prolific perimeter players, Gentry never saw that option as practical enough to pull off in the playoffs.

“We’re going to play at a fast pace,” Gentry says. “I know some would say, `You’re kind of playing into Golden State’s hands. But this is the way we’ve played the whole season, so we’re not going to all of a sudden try to adjust and do something completely different, because the success we’ve had has been based on playing at a fast pace and being a team that has played the fastest pace in the league.

“We don’t have the ability to all of a sudden change that and become a walk-it-up-the-court team,” Gentry continued. “We’re just going to continue to attack.”

The Pelicans found a measure of vindication in Game 3, when the Warriors had an off night shooting and New Orleans won by 19 points. But in Game 4 on Sunday, the Warriors ramped up their defensive intensity, shot better and beat New Orleans by 20-plus points for the second time in the series. Now Golden State can close out the series at home in Game 5 on Tuesday night.

Even when the Pelicans’ had DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins playing alongside fellow All-Star big man Anthony Davis in a lineup that revolved around that imposing front-court tandem, New Orleans played relatively fast. They averaged 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes, which ranked sixth in the NBA.

After Cousins went out for the season with a left Achilles tear in late January, the Pelicans picked up the pace even more. During their final 34 games, they averaged 104.5 possessions per 48 minutes – a faster pace of play than any other team during that span.

If Cousins remained healthy, slowing the pace somewhat, and punishing the smaller lineups the Warriors use to greatest effect, would be a more realistic option for New Orleans. But Cousins is not expected back on the court until after next season begins. And whether he’s still with the Pelicans remains to be seen; New Orleans wants him back, but he’ll be a free agent this summer.

The Pelicans’ current lineup features relatively young, versatile players who move well and can score from various spots on the floor, such as Davis, guard Jrue Holiday and forward Nikola Mirotic. They also have a point guard in Rajon Rondo who thrives when pushing the pace and quickly identifying favorable matchups in transition, or early in possessions.

“After we lost Boogie, we became the No. 1 team in pace and we’re going to continue to be that same team,” Pelicans veteran small forward Solomon Hill said. “For us to change with all the chips on the table would basically be defeating the purpose. If we’re good at something, we’re going to stay with it and if anything, we’re going to try to perfect it.

“If we had Boogie out there, it would be different. We’d slow it down and execute some stuff,” Hill added. “But we’re not going to change for anybody. The way we feel like we can compete at the highest level is to continue to be who we are.”

Gentry has always known what he’s up against in this round of the playoffs. He was a lead assistant coach for Golden State’s 2015 championship team before taking the top job in New Orleans.

During the 2017-18 regular season, the Warriors ranked fifth in pace, averaging 101.9 possessions per 48 minutes, so an up-tempo game was going to take the defending champs out of their comfort zone.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who was Gentry’s boss back in 2015, doesn’t see the Pelicans’ refusal to slow the pace as stubborn. Kerr sees Gentry doing the best he can with the personnel he has.

“You’ve got to do what’s best for your team. You can’t go against your team’s character and change strategy in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “You’ve got to be who you are.”

 

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.