The Pelicans have been playing their best basketball of the young NBA season over the past few nights, winning three games in a row and five of their last seven. But Saturday will measure just how much better New Orleans has gotten in the past two weeks as the Pelicans continue its road trip to Utah.
Vivint Smart Home Arena has been especially kind to the Jazz this season, as Utah is 7-1 in its first eight home games. A few contenders have visited Salt Lake City and none were able to leave with a victory; Utah’s protected its home court against the Clippers, 76ers and Bucks.
Only the Minnesota Timberwolves, who enjoyed an unexpected seven three-pointers from Karl-Anthony Towns and was boosted by an 18-2 fourth quarter run, can say they’ve successfully journeyed to Utah. New Orleans, who is slowly but surely getting healthier, looks to follow Minnesota’s success.
The Pelicans upgraded Josh Hart to questionable for Saturday’s game as Hart continues to battle a sprain in his left ankle. Hart’s missed the past five games. Jahlil Okafor remains listed as questionable. Both Hart and Okafor last played November 11 in New Orleans’ 122-116 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Derrick Favors, Utah’s former center, will not particpate in Saturday’s game due to lower back spasms. Favors’ Salt Lake City homecoming will have to wait till March 13 at the earliest.
Even if Hart and Okafor are not available, New Orleans has received a few key pieces back. Brandon Ingram and Frank Jackson came back for New Orleans’ game against the Trail Blazers; Lonzo Ball made his return Thursday night in Phoenix. And for a Utah team that got all it wanted from a depleted Warriors team Friday night, perhaps a rested New Orleans team can take advantage of a Jazz team playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
Tired or not, Utah is still one of the toughest teams in the league, especially on the defensive end. The Jazz are, once again, led by Rudy Gobert the two-time defending league Defensive Player of the Year. Thanks in large part to his length, the Jazz are tops in the league in defensive rating and are top 10 in limiting fast break points and points in the paint.
But Utah’s excellence defensively isn’t solely because of Gobert’s rim protection. The Utah perimeter players, led by Donovan Mitchell and former Memphis Grizzly Mike Conley, are a top-five unit in limiting opponent three-pointers. The Jazz only allow about 10 threes a game and opponents knock down 31.8 percent of attempts.
It’s strength vs. strength as New Orleans is a top-five team in terms of attempting and hitting three-pointers. E’Twaun Moore is hitting 41 percent of his threes the past six games; JJ Redick is hitting an even 50 percent of his threes; and Brandon Ingram has hit on 45 percent of his threes on the year.
If New Orleans can make Utah run on tired legs, the game could swing in the Pelicans favor. New Orleans ranks sixth in pace, Utah is 21st, and spent Friday night watching a 21-point fourth quarter lead dwindle down to two with about 20 seconds to play. Curiously enough, however, Utah is 2-0 in the second game of a back-to-back. On October 26, Utah obliterated the Kings by 32 and on November 12 the Jazz held off the Nets 19-114.
Whatever the case may be, Saturday is a chance for New Orleans to show it’s rounding into form and that the 1-7 start to the season was only a minor setback for bigger aspirations.
Where To Watch/Listen
What: New Orleans Pelicans (6-9) vs Utah Jazz (10-5)
Where: Vivant Smart Home Arena
When: Saturday, November 23, 2019 8:00 PM CDT.
How: FSNO, NBAtv