The New Orleans Pelicans sit a perfect 3-0 out of the All-Star break, posting dominant wins over the Suns, Lakers and Kings. The best measuring stick of just how well the Pels are currently playing, though, should come tonight in a matchup against the Utah Jazz.
While the Suns have proven over the last several years that they can still win without Chris Paul, the first few games before and after the All-Star break can produce skewed results. For instance, players thinking about an upcoming vacation or returning from one often lack their normal focus.
As for the Lakers and Kings, they are nothing more than inferior opponents, at least at the moment.
On the other hand, the Jazz are entering the Smoothie King Center fully healthy and have won eight of their last nine matchups. Since Feb. 4, no team has a higher offensive rating and true shooting percentage. Only the Grizzlies have crashed the glass stronger.
Donovan Mitchell is averaging 28.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists 4.7 threes and 1.9 steals during this stretch. Also, don’t forget about Utah’s man in the middle. Zach Lowe highlighted Rudy Gobert’s great strength well in an article today.
But Gobert is freaking awesome. He is a one-man defense — the best rim-protector in modern history. It’s selling Gobert short to call him a “rim” protector. That label implies shot-blocking, and Gobert’s impact goes well beyond blocked shots — even beyond spooking players from shooting in the first place.
Gobert is a paint protector. When he spreads his arms, he obliterates space in every direction. He takes away shots and interior passes at the same time. When panicked ball handlers scan for kickout options, they find them blanketed; Utah’s perimeter defenders stay home, knowing Gobert can patrol the inside by himself.
The oddsmakers have listed New Orleans as four-point underdogs. However, my gut says that this new-look Pelicans squad is decently equipped to stop the Jazz.
Mitchell is going to have to contend with Herb Jones, Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado. Gobert is averaging only 8.3 points in three meetings against Jonas Valanciunas this season. The former DPOY is also going to have difficulties containing the Pels’ midrange attack.
Gobert’s effectiveness is often lower in the playoffs because opponents have done a great job of pulling him out of the paint. The lethal midrange games and playmaking abilities of Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum should accomplish that task.
If Gobert dares the Pels’ two stars, they can burn him with their shooting. If he helps, then the duo can choose to either slither past Gobert on a drive or hit an open teammate with the pass. Or both.
We also can’t dismiss the fact that Willie Green has now settled on a rotation where seemingly all the players who rack up minutes, are producing positive value on the court.
The largest concern for the Pelicans in tonight’s matchup should be Utah’s outside shooting. The Jazz average the second-highest number of 3-point attempts and they’re fifth-best at converting those looks.
While New Orleans just held the Suns, Lakers and Kings to scoring totals well below their season averages, they gave up an awfully high number of wide open 3-point attempts. Yet the trio of opponents failed to take advantage. That low opponent 3PT% has a chance of regressing quickly against Utah.
The Jazz have admittedly had the Pelicans’ number shortly after the Quin Snyder era began in Utah. New Orleans has won just five of 17 matchups since the start of the 2017-18 season. However, there exists a good chance that the Pelicans notch their second victory of the season over the Jazz — and it won’t require a game-winner from Devonte’ Graham.
When: March 4, 2022, 7:00 p.m.
Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, NBA League Pass
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM