The NBA Western Conference standings are currently tighter than that parking spot you tried — and failed — to squeeze into on Mardi Gras morning. Unfortunately, the Pelicans are falling fast within those standings. Currently 8th, the Pelicans have lost four of their last five games and now face a stretch of four games in five five nights. The rest of the season could all quickly go completely south or New Orleans makes a timely turnaround. Either way, it starts tonight against the Boston Celtics at 5 p.m.
The Pelicans (39-30) will be looking to sweep the season series from the Celtics (47-22) after knocking off Boston 116-113 earlier on the schedule. New Orleans will catch a bit of a break with Boston guards Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown expected to miss the game and Kyrie Irving is listed as questionable. This news doesn’t mean that the Pels backcourt has the night off, however, as reserve guard Terry Rozier has played quite well for Boston while playing extended minutes during Irving’s absence.
Regardless of the Celtics backcourt status, Head Coach Brad Stevens recently got back big man Al Horford from illness. Horford is terrific defender, especially in the pick and roll, so Anthony Davis will have his work cut out for him tonight.
Five Keys To The Matchup
Protect the three-point line
Boston is currently fourth in the association in three-point percentage (37.4%) and take the sixth most attempts from that range in the league. Granted, if Kyrie Irving doesn’t play, this might be somewhat less of a concern, but Stevens always seems to be able to get replacements to fill in admirably so New Orleans can’t relax if the Celtics star point guard sits this one out. The Pels did a fairly nice job at times of limiting wide open threes against Houston last night. They’ll need a similar effort against one of the best squads in the Eastern Conference.
Role Players, Role Players, Role Players!
This key isn’t really even exclusive to this game. With the Pelicans playing a brutal 4 games in 5 nights, i’m sure Alvin Gentry would like to play his starters — especially Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday — fewer minutes. If the role players can step up and help carry the team for large stretches, this will go a long way toward keeping the teams top players fresh, not only in this game but in subsequent important contests as well.
Look for continued strong play from Ian Clark, however, the real guy to keep an eye out for is Nikola Mirotic. Niko has struggled lately, but like any shooter, he could turn things around at the flip of a switch. If Mirotic can compile a big game, that would take a ton of pressure off the shoulders of Davis and Holiday.
Paging Dr. Jrue
Jrue Holiday has been fantastic for most of the 2017-2018 season, yet the Pels will need Holiday to have another impactful performance. If Kyrie Irving does suit up, Holiday will likely draw the matchup — as it is customary for him to guard the opposition’s best wing player. However, if Irving does miss the contest, this could free up Holiday up to really fill it up.
Even if the Pelicans were out of this playoff race, I’d still be watching with excitement at Cheick Diallo. Diallo’s development has been a quiet revelation for New Orleans this season after DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season. There is always a sliver lining, even from the worst of circumstances, because Diallo would have never received these developmental minutes had the teams All-NBA center still been a part of the rotation.
Diallo’s energy is highly infectious and his athleticism gives New Orleans something they haven’t had in a reserve big in a long time. Maybe ever. The 21-year-old big man still makes mistakes, like biting on pump fakes, but I expect that to be worked out with additional experience. New Orleans will need Diallo’s trademark energy to help bring home a much needed win against the Celtics.
If there is one thing you can count on, it should be Rajon Rondo showing up against his former team. Rondo has had strong showings against previous employers in the past so let’s hope Grudge Rondo shows up tonight with a vintage performance against his old club.
Beyond this being personal match for the veteran point guard, the Pelicans need Rondo to get them started offensively and push the pace of the game. Against Houston, New Orleans offense got bogged down at times. The Pelicans offense is like an old car whose key has to be turned just right to get it started, but once going, look out!
Love him or hate him — and a lot of people hate him — Rondo can still facilitate with the best of them. Having had last night off and with the Celtics backcourt somewhat depleted, Rondo could be in line for heavy minutes as the Celtics may not have the firepower to exploit Rondo defensively. Look for a big game from the vet.
What: New Orleans Pelicans vs Boston Celtics
Where: Smoothie King Center
When: March 18, 2018, 5:00 PM Central
How: FSNO, WRNO 99.5 FM