Don’t look now, but the Pelicans are pretty good. The incredible shot by Anthony Davis gave New Orleans the victory over Oklahoma City and they now sit one game behind Phoenix for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. The Pelicans are hitting their stride at the right time, and if Jrue Holiday returns after the All-Star break, then New Orleans will have all of their rotation players in line for the final eight weeks of basketball.
Everything is shaping out nicely. Asik is playing well over the last couple of games, the bench is offering some production, and of course, Davis is on fire. Even Tyreke Evans is doing great at the point guard position with Holiday out. The only thing I wonder about is what the lineup should be when Holiday returns. Of course, he’s going to be the starting point guard, but what other minor tweaks should the Pelicans make for the stretch. Should they make a tweak? Who knows. All I know is New Orleans is the thick of the race for the eighth seed.
Stats of Note
Sitting at 30-20, the Bulls sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, tied with Cleveland, who sits at 31-21. The Bulls are an odd team at the moment. The once unstoppable defense has now fallen into the middle of the pack, ranking 12th in the league at 102.4 per 100 possessions. Offensively, they sport a top 10 unit, ranking 10th at 105.0 per 100 possessions. The reasons are one in the same - Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose help offensively, but slightly hurt the Bulls on the defensive end.
The defensive issues also linger due to Joacim Noah’s absence in the starting lineup. Even before his injury, Noah looked hurt and his less than stellar play took the Chicago defense down a notch. Along with Noah’s slight decline, Taj Gibson hasn’t been great either. Last season, Gibson was instrumental in leading a Rose-less Bulls team to the playoffs. This season, Gibson has been fine, but his defensive impact has taken a step back.
What helps Chicago is their rebounding ability. The Bulls are seventh in the league in rebounding percentage, thanks to the waves of bodies the Bulls can throw at their opponents in the frontcourt. The first wave is Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol, all three are capable of working the glass. Then, the combination of Nikola Mitotic and Taj Gibson offers Chicago two athletic energy guys who can make life difficult in the interior.
And let’s not forget their breakout star: Jimmy Butler. After a terrible offensive season last year, Butler exploded in the first half to the season, averaging 20.8 points, sporting a 58.2 TS%, averaging 3.2 assists, and as a result, earned his first All-Star bid of his career. The Bulls go to him early and often for offense and even with the slight decline in the last month, Butler’s ability to get to the basket combined with a solid, yet unspectacular three-point shot makes him a dangerous offensive weapon.
Keys to Victory
Rotate the big men - The Bulls have five good post players, meaning New Orleans will have to properly use Davis, Asik, Anderson, Cunningham, and Ajinica in cohesion in order to avoid foul trouble. I believe Davis and Asik will be fine, but I worry about Anderson, who’s struggle on the defensive end all season. This could be a game where the Bulls just attack him and nullify his offensive contributions.
The second guy - I’m curious to see who helps Davis tonight. Last night, Tyreke Evans turned into a fireball, finishing with a monster triple-double and even got Davis the ball late, while orchestrating the rest of the offense. I’d like to think Chicago will throw Butler on Evans in an attempt to disrupt the entire offense. If that is the case, I would if an Eric Gordon can step up and be that second scorer for the Pelicans tonight.
Quincy Pondexter - The Pellies need a good game from Pondexter. He’s provided New Orleans with a solid defender off the bench and his three-point shooting is back, hitting 33.3% on his threes since his return. With my qualms about Butler defending Evans, perhaps Pondexter can assist Gordon in picking up the scoring load.
Anthony Davis - Yes, continue to feed this man. This guy is a stud, and he does everything well at the moment. None of the previous keys matter if Davis shows up and decides to scorch the earth. 29.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 blocks over his last five. Some big game heroics against Oklahoma City and Atlanta over those last five. Continue to feed the beast, Monty.
Hey, the Pelicans are good. I wasn't too mad about the loss against Oklahoma City the first time, because I had a feeling they'd split that two-game series. Now, the Pelicans are entering a little lull in the schedule with Utah, Indiana, Orlando, Toronto, Brooklyn and Miami twice. Feeling good about this game. Geaux Pels.
TV: NBA TV