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NBA preview: Pelicans face Celtics and 4th quarter maestro Isaiah Thomas

Defense still strong for Nola ahead of 1st clash of 5-game road trip

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans play the Boston Celtics Saturday, Jan. 7 at the TD Garden; tip will be just after 6:30 p.m. (CT). The Pelicans begin a five-game Eastern Conference road trip with this contest. You can watch on Fox Sports New Orleans or listen at 99.5 FM. Boston has the game covered on Comcast SportsNet and 98.5 FM The Hub.

The Celtics have won 8 of their last 10 games and sit in 3rd place in the East. New Orleans is 2 games back of the 8th-seeded Sacramento Kings with the Blazers and Nuggets between them and Nola.

New signing Donatas Motiejunas is on the roster and not listed out for any reason, but will he make his Pelicans debut? Make sure you follow @TheBirdWrites for any updates on the Lithuanian’s status after a long, strange trip with the Rockets, Pistons and Nets. But even with the signing, recent news surrounding the team has revolved around a “recently decent” upswing - the Pelicans are 14-15 after that dreadful 0-8 start to the season, a winning percentage that would leave them firmly in the 8th Western Conference playoff spot.

(Off the floor, the Pelicans are also in line asking for Paul Millsap from the Atlanta Hawks.)

Defense First

The Pels defensive rating now ranks 6th in the league, ahead of recently-successful defensive squads like the Clippers, Hornets, Bucks and Cavs. That also includes the disappointingly low-rated Celtics. Even featuring a few guys with excellent defensive reputations, the numbers for Boston’s defense aren’t all that great... Avery Bradley is an exciting ballhawk, Smart has a stronger reputation than warranted and Amir Johnson is the king of advanced stats with a muted style.

The Pelicans feature strong defensive metrics in 3PT Field Goal % (6th lowest allowed in the league) and in Free Throw Attempts (also 6th best in the league), while also allowing the 5th lowest overall Field Goal %. Hey, if they keep preventing teams from making shots - especially 3s and free throws - this defense thing might develop into a real “thing” with this team moving forward. Don’t forget, it was a messy Utah Jazz team that first saw flickers of a top-flight defense a couple of seasons ago before fully developing into the team they are now. These numbers need to be monitored more, especially throughout this 5-game road trip and more as AD fully adjusts to his time at the 5.

Boston 4th Quarter Greatness

In the 4th quarter, Boston rates extremely high in offensive effectiveness: 1st in True Shooting %, lowest turnover %, best Assist-to-Turnover ratio, best Offensive Rating (120.7 points per 100 possessions), and 2nd best Overall Efficiency. These guys make plays and shots late, nobody moreso than Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas recently dropped 52 against the awful Miami Heat and then just a few days ago had 15 assists in another win. Thomas might be the most efficient scorer in the NBA, drawing contact to live at the free throw line where he rarely misses. So far this year, Thomas has had games of 9, 10, 13, 13, 14 and 17 free throw attempts without a miss. This has led to games like the win against Memphis on December 20 when Thomas had 44 points on 16 field goal attempts, thanks to 17 free throw makes and 7 made 3s — seemingly every night he’s scoring 28 on about 18 attempts, it’s amazing.

The original Pizza Guy is 12th in the NBA in Win Shares, 7th in Win Shares per 48 minutes and 3rd in Offensive Box Plus-Minus, 7th in PER and 5th in Usage. Simply put, the offense flows most through the littlest man on the floor. When Thomas flies by his perimeter defender, will AD be a difference maker at the rim? Not many post defenders have done well against I.T., but if anybody can, it’s the agile, long-armed Anthony Davis.

Buddy Lately

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Buddy Hield has improved his scoring and shooting levels in the last two weeks since becoming a starter again. Buddy is second amongst rookies in scoring per game (well behind Joel Embiid), second in three-point attempts per game and shooting 44 percent from behind the arc. Watch to see how he does against various defensive veteran guards like Bradley, Smart and Thomas: I expect Hield to have a difficult night.

Pels Stay Small?

In the last two weeks, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca have found themselves planted firmly to the bench in recent games as the rotation becomes more defined. Triple-double man Tim Frazier hasn’t played in four games and, most notably for the future of this team, Anthony Davis has started and played most of his recent minutes as the “center,” although big men Dante Cunningham, Solomon Hill and Terrence Jones rotate with AD throughout the opposing team’s big players. Watch to see what players AD first covers on possessions - will he match up against Horford or Amir Johnson? If and when Boston goes small with either Jonas Jerebko or Kelly Olynyk at the 4, will Cunningham, Solo or TJones dominate those minutes?

Geaux Pelicans!