The seemingly impossible task becomes the ultimate challenge as each player leads his team into a first-round playoff series that opens Saturday night at Moda Center.
Portland (49-33) is the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and New Orleans (48-34) the No. 6 seed. Only one game separated the teams through a wild, competitive regular season, with spots going down to the final day.
The 6-foot-11 Davis and the 6-foot, 3-inch Lillard play different positions, but they’re both likely first-team All-NBA selections this season. Davis is in the conversation for the Most Valuable Player Award, too.
Davis finished second in the NBA in scoring at 28.1 points per game, was fifth in rebounds (11.1) and led the league in efficiency rating at 33.0. After fellow “Twin Tower” DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season in late January with an Achilles tendon injury, Davis carried the load for a New Orleans team that went 20-8 since Feb. 10, winning its last five games.
“Losing a player like DeMarcus changes your team, but they still have Anthony Davis out there,” Lillard said. “That’s a good problem to have. He’s one of the very best players in our league. Anybody guarding him is going to have a tough time. He can handle the ball, shoots the 3, hit pull-ups and floaters and go coast to coast.”
Portland coach Terry Stotts is expected to use both 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic and 6-foot-9 Al-Farouq “Chief” Aminu to defend Davis, who had 36-point games in the two full contests he played against the Blazers this season. Davis and Aminu played two seasons together in New Orleans in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
“Chief has the height and length to do a good job on (Davis),” Lillard said. “Plus he has the understanding how to guard guys, and he played with him, so he’s familiar with his tendencies. But it’s going to take a team effort. We’re going to have to be ready to play physical with him.”
“There are a lot of good players in this league,” Nurkic said. “He’s one of them. I’m not worried about Anthony Davis. He’s going to make his shots. He’s probably going to get his points. We need to worry about the rest of the team. Some of the other guys, like (Nikila) Mirotic, can have an impact. I’m more worried about one of those guys getting hot, because they have a lot of shooters.”
Lillard tied for fourth in the NBA in scoring at 26.9 points a game, was 10th in assists (6.6) and 11th in efficiency rating at 25.0. He combines with CJ McCollum (21.4-point average, 19th in the NBA) to form one of the most potent backcourt combinations in the league.
“You have to work as hard as you can defensively and hope they are not having one of those great nights they’re capable of having,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Dame is one of the best clutch players in the league. I feel like he’s been an All-Star the last five, six years. He has a way about him, a confidence about him, that he feels like when his team needs a basket the most, he can go get it.”
Davis said he holds great respect for the Blazers but isn’t just happy to be in the playoffs.
“It starts with their guards,” he said. “They are a handful. They can score at will. They’re a good defensive team. We have to make sure we don’t turn the ball over, take care of the defensive boards and play defense.
“Our goal is to not just get in the playoffs, but to make some noise. We want to try to get one, maybe both, of the games (in Portland), then go back home and take care of business.”