The time has come – for the regular season to finally begin, sure, but also for the world to stop pretending that the preseason matters or that anyone cares. We’ve witnessed some fun blips, like Michael Carter-Williams having a pulse and showing glimpses. Also, Carmelo Anthony displaying a play or two of effort on defense, albeit looking rather raw while doing so, but the time for the serious contests has nearly arrived. I will admit, though, it was enjoyable seeing Jimmy Fredette lighting up the Rockets like it was 2011.
Ready for the regular season
First up, the returning Western Conference Semifinalists, who many talked themselves into being an exciting contender to the Golden State Warriors in the second round of last year’s playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans were defeated by the Warriors in uninspiring 4-1 fashion, but ended the season tremendously and birthed a new impressive tandem in perennial MVP candidate, Anthony Davis, and mid-season acquisition, Nikola Mirotic.
DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles tendon in January against the Houston Rockets, the only Rockets loss against them last season. From then on, the Pelicans had an outstanding stretch to conclude the year. After an understandably shaky 1-5 start following the injury, New Orleans finished the year 18-8 en route to the 6th seed in the Western Conference.
An unlikely combo
A significant part of their success and ability to adapt to this huge loss came from the cohesion between Davis and Mirotic. Due to the Cousins injury, AD put up 30 points and 12 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. Mirotic provided the imperative production at forward they were looking to replace, and had a coming out party in the playoffs. There, he shot 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from three while averaging 15 points per game. This was easily the best playoff performance of Mirotic’s career, nearly doubling his previous high, which was 8.7. These factors, along with the explosion of Jrue Holiday as an offensive and defensive stalwart, and solid contributions from Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore, produced a memorable Pelicans season and a 14-win improvement from last year.
A tough matchup in the post
Rondo, who the Rockets will see with the Los Angeles Lakers come next Saturday, is no longer a Pelican, but what New Orleans did acquire was a physical beast in Julius Randle. The Kentucky product and Texas native had a career-high last year in points per game, at 16.1, and shot his best percentage from the field by a striking distance as he jumped from 49 to 56 percent. Look for some experimentation and kinks being worked out mid-game as Randle attempts to gel with the already impressive Pelicans front court as quickly as possible. He will also be hoping for better luck Wednesday night. Last time he opened the season against the Rockets, he sadly broke his tibia and ended his season on night one.
As alluded to, the Rockets were 3-1 against the Pelicans last year, with all but the final contest being quite close. One particular trend from last year’s games was the success of Clint Capela, who scored a team-high 28 in their first game, so the matchup between him and Davis, or potentially Randle, will be an interesting one to watch.
Houston’s occasionally sparse home crowd will be affected even more by the Houston Astros playing a home playoff game down the street on the same night. I expect an exciting first matchup and plenty of intrigue in watching how Houston’s primary new additions of Anthony and James Ennis fit into the squad.
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