The New Orleans Pelicans will face a third litmus test in as many games when they battle the Boston Celtics on Friday inside the Smoothie King Center.
The Pels dispatched the Grizzlies on Tuesday, defeating the gritty opponent that had previously beaten them handily three straight times.
(New Orleans lost the last three matchups of the 2021-22 regular season to Memphis by a combined total of 60 points.)
Then on the following day, the Pels showed no mental or physical fatigue on the second night of a back-to-back, shooting lights out against the Chicago Bulls.
(The last time the Pelicans won a back-to-back set, Stan Van Gundy was roaming the sidelines.)
Now a matchup against the best team in basketball awaits.
The Celtics sit atop the league with a 12-3 record and there isn’t a more potent tandem right now than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
CJ McCollum broke down how that duo has managed to take that proverbial next step to reach an elite level on the latest episode of The CJ McCollum Show.
.@CJMcCollum thinks the Celtics' star duo of Tatum and Brown have taken a big leap since the NBA Finals ☘️ pic.twitter.com/4aDuFA1hGn— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 17, 2022
Tatum is one of seven players averaging over 30 points per game. He’s also on pace for career-bests in field goal percentage (48.1%), field goal makes (10.0) and attempts (20.8), two-point percentage (58.0%), free throw percentage (87.0%), free throw makes (7.6) and attempts (8.7), 3-point makes (3.5) and blocked shots (1.4).
There’s little doubt in my mind that many view him as a top 10 player in the league. To be honest though, I think top 3-5 is more fair, however, when crediting him for all his defensive abilities and how close he came to hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy over the summer.
There’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry, but after that, a strong debate can be had to list Tatum third. So yes, he belongs ahead of guys like Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid.
Of course, the Celtics are more than Tatum and it starts with perhaps the best No. 2 in the league in Brown, who is undoubtedly on his way to a career year as well. He’s 14th in the league in scoring at 25.1 points in the game; however, there should be belief in the rest of the Celtics roster too.
Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Al Horford, Derrick White, Grant Williams and Sam Hauser form an excellent support cast.
“I think we’ve always been a competitive group,” Brown said during Boston’s media day. “Even last year, we were competitive and now we’re playing a little bit smarter. We get into our spacing, we pushing the ball ahead, we are more conscious about turning it over, and guys are comfortable in what they do best. I think we were competitive last year, just this year some of the things is like working together a little bit more smooth, so it looks a little better for us.”
Brown was right.
The Celtics were below .500 through the first half of last season, but then hit the ignition switch after an 18-21 start, finishing the campaign with a 33-10 record. That’s carried over to this season and we probably should have seen it coming, despite Robert Williams’ injury and the controversy surrounding Ime Udoka.
Boston has the league’s best offense (119.2 ORTG) and have the second-best turnover percentage (12.9%). Their 16th-ranked defense (111.5 DRTG) has room for improvement, but Williams’ eventual return should markedly help. In the meantime, Boston can rely on the fact that they’re outscoring opponents by 7.1 points per contest.
Fortunately for New Orleans, they have a multitude of offensive weapons — especially if Zion Williamson returns to action after missing the last two games with a right foot contusion — and the team (hi, CJ!) has found their outside shot, but the Pelicans defense could prove decisive against Tatum and Brown.
Willie Green has a collection of great individual defenders in Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr., Dyson Daniels and Naji Marshall. They were able to harass Doncic enough in a win over the Mavericks and slowed Ja Morant considerably in the fourth quarter a few nights ago en route to a very quality win.
So, as I indicated from the start, tonight is going be another good measuring stick for this Pelicans squad. They’re a team on the rise in the Western Conference following three straight victories. Knocking off one of the championship favorites which is playing well — Boston’s won eight straight — would make for a great resume builder and serve as an additional nice confidence spring board for the rest of this campaign.
Who: New Orleans Pelicans (9-6) vs Boston Celtics (12-3)
When: November 18, 2022, 7:30 p.m. CT
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass
Where to listen: WRNO 99.5
For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.