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NBA Preview: Rockets ‘Small-Ball’ unit on collision course with Pelicans ‘Small-Ball-Wrecking-Ball’ in Zion Williamson

The Houston Rockets like small ball? That could be a recipe for disaster against the number one overall pick who’s playing like the best small-ball five in the NBA.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The hype is real in Nola right now folks.

Winners of three straight and 14 of their past 21, the New Orleans Pelicans are flying high.

On top of you know who, the Pelicans ‘other’ guys have jelled perfectly since Zion’s arrival.

Jrue Holiday? 23.7 points, six assists, 4.7 rebounds, 2.2 stls, 2.1 blks and a +12.1 net rating on 49.5/43.6/78.3, per-36 in the past five games.

Lonzo Ball? 11 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds on 41.2 percent from three.

JJ Redick? 15.2 points on 52.4%/53.8%/90%.

Derrick Favors? 10.2 points, 9.2 rebounds on 65.6 percent and the league’s fifth-best net-rating.

Nicolo Melli? Putting up 65%/56%/100% and a +7.1 net-rating.

Ingram’s All-Star numbers have been the most significant drop off as he navigates a new life alongside Zion, but he’s still shooting 40.7 from three-point range in addition to 19.2 points per game.

As for Zion?

Zion is putting up 27.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per-36 on 65.6 eFG. No player has ever done that over the course of a season.

Like, ever.

His numbers at the 5 are earth shattering. The Pelicans are 40.2 points better than their opponent per-100 possessions.


Yes, it’s a small sample size, but folks it’s growing fast. He’s played 25 minutes at the position and looks to be having his way with small-ball 5s like Jae Crowder and even traditional bigs like Jonas Valancuinas.

So, enter the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets have two All-Stars and former MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The Pelicans have matched up well against Harden as of late, as their trapping style above the break has forced him to involve playmakers less suited to do so. Harden still ranks in the 100th percentile in usage, 98th in points per shot attempt and 95th in assist percentage despite opponents similar approach to the one executed by the Pelicans.

But with Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart the Pelicans have the bodies to do it better than most.

As for Westbrook? There’s no one we’d rather see with the ball.

Westbrook is 98th in usage and THIRTY-FIRST in points per shot attempt. That’s really, really, really bad.

As for the unit as a whole, we know what they do. They’re the second-fastest team in the NBA with the third-best halfcourt offense and 15th defense.

They give up traditional NBA basketball by flying across the floor and exposing mismatches in fast break (eighth) and from three (first).

Eric Gordon has been a huge addition after missing 22 games. He poured in 50 against the Utah Jazz on just 22 shots.

But the Rockets are shorthanded without Clint Capela. They’re the first team to play a five-man lineup all under 6’6” over the course of a game since 1963.

“We’re 2-0 with it. The underlying thing is we’re just really trying to open it up for James and Russ to get to the rim so we can get layups,” coach Mike D’Antoni said following a victory against Dallas. Those are the best shots — and fouls. That lineup permits that. Now, can you play that well enough defensively and rebounding to make them blink and they go small? Or do their bigs impose their will? That’s the challenge, and we’ll see. If we play hard and we’re attentive to details, it’ll work.”

Enter Zion and the best small-unit in NBA history.

Ready for some small-sample size theatre?!

Zion - Holiday - Jackson - Moore - Hart ? 112.5 net-rating

Zion - Ball - Jackson - Moore - Hart? 53.3 net-rating

Zion - Holiday - Moore - Hart - Redick? 44.4 net-rating

Zion - Ball - Redick - Hart - Melli? 35.5 net-rating

The point is, you don’t want to go small against this team. According to Fastbreak Breakfast, 81.3 percent of Zion’s shots either go in, or are rebounded by him. PJ Tucker had just one rebound against Dallas in 36:15 minutes of action on Friday night.

But even should the Pelicans play big, they’ll still carry the advantage. The Pelicans will trot out their starting lineup with a frontcourt of Ingram - Zion - Favors which has been positive 26.7 better than opponents per 100 possessions in 124 possessions.

But these Rockets are nothing to scoff at. They’re 30-18 for a reason. The Pelicans will have to slow them on the defensive end, something that has not been their strong suit this season (112.5, 25th).

But I’m feeling cocky. The Pelicans have won their last three games by an average of 19 points. They’re going to keep rolling until someone finds an answer for Zion.

So far for the NBA, not so good.

Geaux Pels!

Where To Watch/Listen

What: New Orleans Pelicans (20-29) at Houston Rockets (30-14)

Where: Toyota Center - Houston, TX

When: Sunday, February 1, 2019 1:00 PM CST

How: ABC