BOSTON – In the NBA, some teams are built to play small ball with three guards as starters.
Others are constructed to go big with talented, high-impact big men.
And then there’s the New Orleans Pelicans, who seem to start games with both at the same time.
Dealing with New Orleans’ non-traditional starting lineup will be one of the many challenges awaiting the Celtics tonight.
While the Pelicans’ atypical starting five may not necessarily be ideal, there’s no arguing against its effectiveness.
New Orleans starts games with a three-guard lineup that includes 6-foot-1 Rajon Rondo with Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore who are both 6-4 guards. They are joined by the twin terrors – to opposing defenses at least – of 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins and 6-10 Anthony Davis.
They have been New Orleans’ most successful five-man unit, posting a 12-8 record this season. It’s one of the biggest reasons they are come in sixth in the Western Conference at 22-20, trailing Oklahoma City (24-20) by one game.
Boston has played its share of non-traditional lineups under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens.
Like the Pelicans, the key for Boston to do so successfully lies in the versatility of their power forward.
For New Orleans, that would be Davis.
The Celtics rely on Al Horford to provide a similar element of versatility.
“Last year, we started Amir [Johnson, now with Philadelphia] with Al,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Kelly [Olynyk, now in Miami] played a lot with Al. I think what Al allows you to do, is he gives you another guy that shoots like a traditional guard so he can play both spots and his ability to defend fours [power forwards] allows him to play with anybody.”
How Horford handles his rotating assignments defensively will be among the challenges Boston will contend with tonight.
Here are five under-the-radar storylines to keep tabs on tonight:
We have seen this season how former Celtics return to the TD Garden to light up the Green Team, and tonight’s game is full of potential candidates to keep the tradition set by Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko (Utah) alive and well. Among the ex-Celtics on the Pelicans roster are E’Twaun Moore and Rajon Rondo who are both slated to start tonight. New Orleans roster also includes former Celtics Tony Allen (left fibula fracture) and Jameer Nelson (personal) who are both listed as out tonight.
PASSING BIG MEN
You won’t ever mistake Horford for Cousins, but the two big men do have at least one thing in common: passing. While both have shown the ability to score (Cousins on a much grander, more consistent scale for sure), one of their biggest strengths is their ability to get teammates involved offensively. Horford averages 5.3 assists per game, which would be tops among all centers, but most of Horford’s playing time this season has come as a power forward. Still, 5.3 assists per game are impressive enough to rank fifth among all forwards this season. As for centers, Cousins’ 5.1 per game is indeed the pace-setter for the rest of the league’s centers.
With Davis’ size, athleticism and versatility, he is one of the select few players whose game has very few holes in it. And while he can score from just about any spot on the floor, keeping Davis in the mid-range zone offensively is key. According to nba.com, Davis is shooting 39.3 percent on mid-range shots this season. That’s not horrible, but it is a noticeable drop-off from what he does at the rim in the restricted area (75.8 percent), in the paint non-restricted area (50.8 percent) and on corner 3’s (54.5 percent).
ON THE REBOUND
Often the clearest indicator of Boston’s success lies in how well the Celtics rebound. In their current seven-game winning streak, rebounding – surprise, surprise – has been one of their strengths. In the past seven games, Boston has averaged 47.9 rebounds per game. The only team with a higher average in that span is the Los Angeles Lakers (49.3). In addition, Boston is grabbing 50.9 percent of available rebounds, which ranks ninth in the NBA during the seven-game winning streak.
TATUM MINUTES ADD UP
As a rookie last season, Jaylen Brown logged 1,341 regular-season minutes, which was pretty good for a first-year player on a team pegged before his arrival as a playoff-caliber club. Fast forward to this season and another Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum. Despite having played in 44 games this season (Brown appeared in 78 games as a rookie last year), Tatum has literally played more than Brown, with 1,362 minutes already logged. The left knee stiffness that kept him out of practice Saturday was determined to not be an issue, but it’s worth monitoring his health as his impact – and minutes played – continue to rise.