Since starting the season 1-12, the Pelicans have made a modest run to make the play-in tournament. They’re just a game and a half a game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the 10th spot in the West. The Celtics are in a similar position. Despite being .500, they’re on the outside looking into a playoff spot, sitting half a game behind the #10 New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference. To their credit, they’re 6-3 since New Year’s Eve and play four of their next five games at TD Garden. A strong push before the February 10 trade deadline could bolster their position and motivate Brad Stevens to make a deal for a postseason push.
Despite the absence of Marcus Smart in the league’s health and safety protocols, the Celtics are enjoying a stretch of relatively good health coinciding — surprise, surprise — good play. In January, Boston boasts the 6th best defensive in the league, giving up 106.4 points per 100 possessions and holding five of their last ten opponents under 100 points. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are averaging a combined 52.2 points per game and Robert Williams has been a consistent double-double threat every night. His 4-for-4 clutch free throw night against the Bulls on Saturday night capped off another strong performance (14 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, and two blocks) in a stirring comeback win.
New Orleans has been without Zion Williamson all year and All-Star Brandon Ingram has missed a chunk of time. However, they’ve found production from unlikely sources. After trading for Jonas Valanciunas, the Lithuanian big man is having arguably the best season of his career. Second round pick Herbert Jones is making a case for All-Rookie first team consideration, averaging 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in the new year. They’ve notched wins over Golden State, Cleveland, and Milwaukee over the last month.
Probable Starters & Rotation
New Orleans Pelicans
Key Matchups & Keys to the Game
Jayson Tatum vs. Brandon Ingram: At the end of Saturday’s comeback win against the Chicago Bulls, Tatum thwarted a game-winning shot from DeMar DeRozan with outstanding one-on-one defense. He’s averaging nearly 24 points over the last five games, but his strength and length might be better served stopping New Orleans leading scorer.
Keep the Pelicans off the boards: New Orleans is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding and sixth in second chance points with their big frontcourt. The Celtics have started size with their double-big lineup of Al Horford and Robert Williams, so expect a battle on the glass.
Three-point shooting: The Celtics haven’t exactly lit the world on fire from behind the arc, but the Pelicans haven’t defended against the 3 either. New Orleans is 29th in opponent three-point percentage. On the other hand, Boston has seen improvement every month in the regular season; a home-heavy schedule has them shooting 37.2%. They’ve tapered down attempts from the beginning of the year, but against a porous Pelicans perimeter defense, the Celtics could continue their hot shooting at TD Garden.
Celtics-Pelicans kicks of a full day of Martin Luther King Day NBA action and Boston has played well in early starts. They nearly upset the defending champs in Milwaukee on Christmas Day and blew out the Western Conference finalists on New Year’s Eve, so rolling out of bed a little earlier shouldn't affect them too much. However, this is the Celtics third game in four nights and the team has battled the consistency bug all year. But even with that said, they seemed to have turned a corner. Their defense is back in championship form and offensively, they've hit a groove knowing where and how they get their shots. With the odds in their favor, I'll take the home team: Celtics 111, Pelicans 98.