The New Orleans Pelicans weren't supposed to be here.
Two games after a 44-point, 23-rebound, 10-assist, four-steal masterpiece against the Chicago Bulls, DeMarcus Cousins' season ended when he tore his Achilles. Usually, when a team loses one of the league's most talented big men in January, the outlook isn't bright.
Deservedly, Jrue Holiday's heroics, Anthony Davis' superhero play and Rajon "Playoff" Rondo's energy at the right time (again) have overshadowed Nikola Mirotic's work. But because of his ability to defend at a high level and his fit within the offense, he helped save the Pelicans' season.
Power forwards have to check a lot of boxes to be able to compete in the varying landscape of today's NBA. Versatility is more important at the power forward spot than any other. They must be able to chase wings around screens, switch onto point guards, defend pick-and-rolls in space and bang with bigs in the post.
Mirotic has never been thought of as a great defender. It's true he doesn't serve as his team's stopper at the rim, but in overall defensive ability, he's never gotten his due credit.
"No idea," he told Bleacher Report when asked why he has a reputation as a poor defender. "Sometimes, with Europeans, white guys, they think they can't guard. It's not true."
Mirotic may not be a defensive anchor, but among power forward and centers who played a minimum of 1,490 minutes, he was one of seven players in the league with a block percentage above 2.1, a steal percentage above 1.3 and a defensive rebounding percentage above 24.5. Anthony Davis was the only other power forward to do it.
Mirotic's awareness puts him in position to make plays, but in the playoffs, he's shown even more versatility. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, he switched onto Damian Lillard for seven possessions and surrendered just two points. He allowed CJ McCollum six points on seven possessions.
The ability to switch out onto one of the most offensively lethal scoring threats and make life difficult is a win for the Pelicans. He shows the mobility to keep Lillard in front of him and the timing to get a hand up and contest even if he gets beaten. His athleticism and mobility that challenged the Blazers at the point of attack was a huge reason why the Pelicans advanced to the second round.
"I do know what I'm capable of, and I know what I'm not," he said. "I've always been comfortable switching with the smalls, blitzing the pick-and-rolls, moving my feet well. Sometimes, like I said, you have a superstar and whatever you do, they're going to score on you."
Mirotic guarded Kevin Durant in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors for 33 possessions and allowed him just eight points on 4-of-12 shooting. He forced three turnovers and didn't foul KD. Sure, he got roasted a few times—who doesn't against that guy? The Pelicans as a team allowed 35 points during those 33 possessions, but guarding Durant with Mirotic proved successful.
Of course, there will be plays where Durant is too good:
But that's true for anyone trying to check him. For the most part, Mirotic defended him admirably:
"I think I did a good job, especially after the first few minutes," Mirotic said of his defense on Durant. "He scored the first possession on me; he had a backdoor. After that, I was basically contesting the shots and he was missing. He's an amazing player. Sometimes all you can do is contest the shot. Depends on the day he's going to have.
"I need to make him uncomfortable. I'm 6'10" with a long wingspan, so just try to have good body position, be in front of him and try to make him shoot tough shots."
Offensively, Mirotic adds the element of spacing and playmaking the Pelicans lost when Cousins went down. His shooting is inconsistent and, at times, erratic, but in this system we're finally seeing what he can do.
Mirotic is being used in a way that enhances his strengths. Rather than placing him on the wing to space the floor, he's running off screens, taking advantage of mismatches and generally being a contributor within the offense as opposed to being an outlet.
"I do think I have a better role here," Mirotic said. "Especially because there is more movement with the ball. Much more freedom. We are not holding the ball. I remember the first few years [in Chicago], we were holding the ball; there were a lot of isos [isolations]. Here, it's all transition with Rondo, with Jrue, with AD—we are all running. And it's simple basketball."
Mirotic benefited greatly from the extra movement in the Pelicans offense. With Davis at center and shooters spreading the floor, he could find seams in the defense and get backdoor layups throughout the series.
Notice the hammer screens Holiday sets to free him. Normally, those are set to open up a corner three-pointer, but the Pelicans put a different spin on it to get Mirotic rolling early.
"A lot, not just now," Mirotic explained when asked how those kinds of easy baskets can help him heat up. "I remember when I was struggling for those two weeks in March, I wasn't shooting well. I was trying to, even though I wasn't shooting well, make an impact. It was being good defensively, rebounding the ball. Offensively, we were talking about what we can do to make the game easier, so we put that play in so I can make a layup or get open."
He's also more than capable of taking advantage of mismatches around the floor, from abusing guards in the post to toying with bigs on the perimeter:
The Warriors, however, don't have as many mismatches for Mirotic to exploit, and that could be a problem for the Pelicans. With Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston all sharing the bulk of the work on Mirotic in Game 1, he wasn't able to show off his offensive tricks against such a long, mobile defense.
This matchup provides a challenge for the Pelicans.
They were built to cut off the two-headed snake of Lillard and McCollum in the opening round by trapping the pick-and-roll and forcing the rest of the roster to beat them. The Warriors' star power coming from the wing positions makes them a different challenge, as does their willingness to spread the offensive love and create chaos through cuts and movement.
The Pelicans were handed a rude awakening in Game 1, but they weren't even supposed to be in the playoffs. Now they're battling the defending champs in Round 2, thanks in part to Mirotic's work.