Heading into Friday’s game, the Boston Celtics will be hoping to extend their win streak to 9 straight games, although the New Orleans Pelicans will hope to provide a stern test. Without Marcus Smart, the Celtics will once again find some additional minutes for Payton Pritchard and place some additional workload on the shoulders of Derrick White.
However, Malcolm Brogdon being declared available to play is certainly a boost heading into the contest. Furthermore, Zion Williamson is listed as questionable by the Pelicans is a significant question mark hanging over the Pelicans, one which could make or break their hopes of snapping the Celtics' stampede toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Still, New Orleans has multiple threats within their roster, both on offense and defense, and they’re incredibly accustomed to playing without Zion in their rotation — this isn’t a new development for them. With all that being said, here are my 3 tickets to triumph for Friday night’s game.
Contain Jonas Valanciunas
He might not be one of the primary threats on the Pelicans roster, but Jonas Valanciunas is certainly a primary threat to the Celtics. Standing at 6’11’’ with a hulking frame, the Celtics will need to be locked in on the defensive glass if they want to limit Valanciunas’ impact as a rebounder and reduce the amount of second-chance points they give up against the Pelicans.
Furthermore, when he's operating as a screener, Valanciunas can be a whole problem, both as a roll man and a popper. As such, the Celtics will need to execute their switching system to a near-flawless level if they want to ensure New Orleans’ very own Drax The Destroyer as he’s walloping his way to the rim.
I would expect New Orleans to lean into Valanciunas as a pivot point within their offense, ensuring he gets touches while off-ball actions occur, before having the big man redirect the rock and look to box out his defender. It’s going to be a tough night for the Celtics' half-court defense.
Rip that rim
Opposing teams are converting 70.6% of their attempts around the Pelicans' rim, making them the 28th-ranked team in the league for defending the restricted area. It makes sense then, that Boston will look to get downhill at every opportunity, as they look to take advantage of a clear weakness within the Pelicans' defensive armor.
Fortunately, both White and Brogdon excel at penetrating off the dribble before finding cutters or wide-open shooters for easy buckets, which is precisely the type of offensive upside that’s going to give Willie Green some serious headaches throughout the contest.
Boston currently has four players converting at a high rate around the rim in Jayson Tatum (77%), Al Horford (80%), Jaylen Brown (66%), and Grant Williams (71%) so it’s clear they have plenty of scoring threats to ensure they convert on the opportunities they create throughout the night.
Defend the perimeter
No team is seeing more of their above-the-break 3’s drop through the net than the Pelicans, with them hitting on 40.4% of their 22.9 attempts per game. Fortunately, defending those types of 3-point shots is an area of strength for the Celtics, with them ranking 9th in the league, allowing opponents to shoot a paltry 34.1%.
However, without Marcus Smart, that defensive pressure will need to be air-tight, otherwise, we could quickly see the Pelicans explode from deep and build some momentum for themselves. Still, given Boston’s current uptick on defense (Cleaning The Glass ranks them 13th over the last two weeks) there’s every reason to believe they can shut up shop and force the Pelicans into some tightly contested looks, forcing their season average to take a slight beating.
Overall, though, New Orleans perimeter shooting is a threat Joe Mazulla will need to deal with, but given his reputation for meticulous game preparation, something tells me he’s already got his game plan set in stone.
While it’s hard to admit, the fact is, Boston’s win streak won’t last forever. Sure, we could see them go 10-games, 15-games, heck, even 20-games, but sooner or later defeat will be on the horizon. Now, I’m not saying Friday’s game is going to be a loss, nor do I think that but it’s worth preparing ourselves for — and it won’t indicate any form of implosion, it’s just the nature of the beast.
Still, regardless of whether Zion plays or not, I would expect the Celtics to simply have too much depth, and too many offensive outlets for the Pelicans to deal with, but CJ McCollum will certainly need to be contained, as will Brandon Ingram.
I’m taking Boston in this one.