The NBA has done the unthinkable in creating a COVID-19-free campus environment for players and key personnel in addition to preparing a seemingly endless list of logistics that go into the day to day life of the average athlete.
Wine fridges, fishing, barber shops, hundreds of thousands of pounds of ice per day, all things the league needed to carefully plot out on top of a level of testing unseen elsewhere in the United States.
But now it’s time for the main event — basketball that counts, and it’s fitting in some weird way that the initial benefactor of this incredible display of execution will be Rudy Gobert. After all, Gobert’s careless interactions with Utah Jazz teammates and media personnel played a significant role in shutting down the NBA in the first place.
“People didn’t have much to talk about for four months,” Gobert said. “Now that we’re back playing, I think it’s time to put it behind. I get asked about [my relationship with Mitchell] every day. I can understand. But I hope there are some more interesting topics now.”
On the opposite end of the floor will be our New Orleans Pelicans. However, before the two teams do battle against each other the moment the ball is tossed into the air, the two will unite beforehand in a powerful gesture that should deservedly cast a light on social justice.
On Pelicans and Jazz players and coaches and their expected plans to kneel in solidarity around the BLACK LIVES MATTER floor lettering during Thursday night's national anthem, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told @GMA this morning: "I respect peaceful protest."— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 29, 2020
Once that message is delivered to the millions of eyes certain to be glued to every moment of the most significant sporting event in four months, the restart will get underway and all eyes will fall on the Pelicans and Jazz in the opener.
These two teams have met three times during the 2019-20 season and provided plenty of entertaining fireworks, with each final tally combining for 248 points or more and each being decided by eight points or less.
On January 6, the game was decided by two points when Brandon Ingram challenged Gobert in transition at the buzzer which potentially would have sent the contest to overtime, but he failed to draw a whistle.
Straight garbage at the end of the Pelicans/Jazz game. Down 2 Brandon Ingram takes it to the rack and CLEARLY gets hit on the arm by Gobert! They review it and determine it was a “clean block”.— Doug McKain (@DMAC_LA) January 7, 2020
Has a city ever been screwed by the refs as much as New Orleans? #nba #pels pic.twitter.com/0FrESgIizl
On January 16th, Ingram took things into his own hands again, this time scoring 49 points on 25 shots in a six-point overtime win the Pelicans desperately needed in order to stay alive in the Western Conference standings.
Ingram wasn’t the only high-scoring All-Star to earn attention in that contest. Donovan Mitchell exploded for 46 points, after scoring 37 in the first matchup back in November. Slowing Spida will be critical for New Orleans to keep pace with the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies in the race for the eighth seed.
The Pelicans will be fortunate, though, to not face Bojan Bogdanovic, who averaged 29.8 points per game on 19 shots per game against the Pelicans. He opted for surgery in May on a ligament in his right wrist and will miss the rest of this season.
The Jazz (41-23) are a well-balanced team, placing eighth in offensive rating and 11th in defensive with Gobert as the low-post anchor. Royce O’Neale will likely assume the challenge against Brandon Ingram. Should Mike Conley Jr. start, he and Mitchell will share assignments against Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday. Joe Ingles could be a nightmare for the Pelicans thanks to his perimeter shooting and ability to navigate the pick-and-roll.
Derrick Favors with a huge block of Rudy Gobert leading to Brandon Ingram's game-tying three! Can the Pels overcome the best clutch team in the NBA? pic.twitter.com/nvFeGHiL5J— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) January 7, 2020
Rudy Gobert versus Derrick Favors may be the most unheralded matchup and yet the most critical of all. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Gobert will look to lock down the paint as he does with regularity against most opponents. He grades in the 100th percentile in D-PIPM, DRPM, rim contests, blocks, rim points and defensive rebounding saved per BBall Index.
By comparison, Favors ranks in the 100th percentile in offensive rebounding, 99th percentile in rim contests, 98th percentile in blocks, 91st percentile in D-PIPM and 87th percentile in DRPM.
If Favors can play Gobert to a draw, it would be a significant step toward earning the much-needed victory for New Orleans.
The Pelicans could have an additional weapon available. Andrew Lopez has reported Zion Williamson will be a game-time decision after his brief quarantine and two practices on both Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon.
Since Zion’s absence wasn’t due to any injury, it would come as a mild surprise to see the Pelicans hold him out completely for missing close to several weeks of game activity. However, there should be an expectation that his typical workload may decrease.
What Rudy Gobert's nightmares look like.— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) January 14, 2020
Is it Thursday yet?! pic.twitter.com/M8GOKUCYk6
If the Pelicans do get 20 plus minutes from Zion, they should be considered the favorite. Zion is the only rookie ever to score 23.6 points with 6.8 rebounds while shooting 58 percent from the field. With him in the lineup, the Pelicans starting five was first in the NBA with a 26.3 net-rating.
More than that, the Pelicans need to win this game while the Jazz have already stamped their playoff ticket. The Jazz are currently sitting in fourth, but they are only a game ahead of the Thunder and Rockets. However, without the benefit of home court advantage in Orlando’s bubble, it’s difficult to find a reason for Utah to give their fullest effort beyond just building momentum as they move toward the playoffs.
Oddshark has the Pelicans as a 1.4 point favorite.
Zion on what he was able to do during quarantine in Orlando and when he left the bubble pic.twitter.com/V0QUhti2dG— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) July 29, 2020
The Pelicans, on the other hand, need as many victories as they can collect as they hope to at least trigger a potential play-in tournament. If New Orleans can start off strong and grab a couple of wins against the Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, they could put themselves in position to overtake the Memphis Grizzlies for the highly coveted eighth spot.
As you know, the team sitting in eighth needs to only defeat the ninth team once in the play-in tournament, while the latter must defeat the eighth twice — an incredible advantage. With eight games to play and 3.5 to make up, every game will be critical to that end.
Regardless of what happens and who plays, it’s nice to have even just a shred of normalcy back.
Thanks for reading. And let’s geaux, Pels!
Who: Utah Jazz vs New Orleans Pelicans
When: 5:30 p.m. Central
Where to watch: TNT, FSNO
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM