Williamson, who left the bubble for personal reasons, has been cleared to play in the first competitive game of the NBA’s restart.
The Pels are 3.5 games back on the Grizz for that final spot. Being within four games will force a play-in tournament. Unfortunately for New Orleans, there’s the small matter of the Portland Trail Blazers in their way. Portland is in the nine seed as it stands.
With a better winning percentage, New Orleans need to better the Blazers’ record in the eight seeding games to overtake them. This is where the second opening night of the season becomes particularly important. New Orleans’ schedule is as follows:
It’s a favourable run in, to put it mildly. The Pelicans deserve such, considering they had by far the easiest remaining games when the season was halted. They were on the charge.
A record of 9-10 in the games Williamson played is hardly spectacular, but his on/off numbers were downright absurd. There’s noise in there, and it’s a relatively small sample, yet there’s reason to believe that the Pelicans with Zion are a serious force. Their net rating was 13.6 better with him on the floor than off.
The first overall pick hasn’t matched up with the Jazz so far. It’s a clash of styles, a meeting of two contrasting paint forces. Zion will be guarded by Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who protects the rim at a level that few others can get close to. Williamson gets dunks, and has the fleet of foot to escape his man, as he’s shown on countless occasions in his young NBA career. Gobert is one of a handful of defensive players with the strength to go up against Zion.
These are teams who play different basketball, though. New Orleans push the pace – court-long passes from Lonzo Ball to Zion are already a trademark. They get out in transition, and Williamson will be charging towards the basket leaving Gobert to chase. Utah are much more deliberate, a slow offensive unit running pick-and-rolls and having to work for good looks.
The team that controls the pace will quickly become favourite in this game. The Jazz need to halt transition buckets. The Pelicans need to get stops to allow them to get out and run.
The Jazz-Pelicans matchup might not leap off the page as a blockbuster. It is an important one, however.
Utah could yet slip down the standings. Home advantage is obviously not be a factor, but a poor run in these seeding games could leave them perilously close to the seven seed in a few days’ time.
For the Pels, every game carries great importance. Given the Clippers looming in their second game, a winning start is paramount. Their task will seem daunting if they go 0-2, but 1-1 or even 2-0 ahead of six winnable games and they soon will have Memphis under pressure.