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Game Preview: The Pelicans Travel Out To Queen City

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New Orleans fly out to Charlotte for a game against the Hornets for some good, old fashioned basketball. The Hornets are currently toiling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, so this is a must win game. Anthony Davis is doing stuff, Eric Gordon is back, and the Pelicans seem to be at full strength, coming up on a very important time.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans are 17-17, but things are looking up, even after a tough loss to Washington. After a 21-game absence, Eric Gordon returned to the starting lineup against the Wizards and finished with six points, four rebounds, and five assists in 33 minutes.

His return gives New Orleans their full roster back and coincides perfectly with an easier portion of the schedule. Their next nine games? Charlotte, Memphis, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. It's a good time to work out the kinks and kick-off a nice winning streak starting with the Charlotte Hornets.

After a breakthrough season that saw Charlotte, in their last season as the Bobcats, make the playoffs and see Kemba Walker take a step forward, the new-Hornets added Lance Stephenson and former Pelican Brian Roberts and came out of the gate struggling. Their 12-24 record is good for 12th in the Eastern Conference. That same 12-24 record keeps Charlotte in the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, sitting just three and a half games for the eighth and final spot in the East.

Before I forget, the Hornets SB affiliate, At The Hive, has some really good writers over there. They probably wrote a bomb preview about this game. Check it out here: At The Hive

Stats Of Note

Per HP Basketball Network's Nylon Calculus, The Hornets are 28th in the league in offensive efficiency. The starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson are sporting true shooting percentages of 49 and 42 percent, both career lows. Al Jefferson is slightly less efficient than last year, and the departure of Josh McRoberts removed an important ball mover and floor spacer from the roster. The Hornets are 19th in total assists and 28th in points created by assists per game, via NBA.com’s stats.

The defense isn’t bad, though, ranking 16th in the league in defensive efficiency.  For all of Stephenson’s offensive struggles, he has maintained his defensive ability, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the more underrated defensive players in the league. The issue? The Hornets have taken a step back on defending the rim. Last season, the Hornets were solid at defending the rim, even without a natural rim protector. This season, the Hornets rank 23rd at opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim.

All of these average numbers being thrown out, the Hornets still have an interesting team. Their nine-man rotation of Jefferson, Walker, Neal, Stephenson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Henderson, Zeller, Williams, and Roberts is nice, but lacks a number one star and an ideal floor spacer. Having bad shooters like Henderson and Stephenson out there is rough, but then throw in Gary Neal shooting 30.1% from three and everything is all bad. If the Hornets can somehow acquire a shooter, I believe they can turn it around and fight for that final spot in the East.

Keys To Victory

Use the proper nine: When looking at the boxscore against the Wizards, I was a bit peeved to see New Orleans using largely seven players and the others for under 10 minutes. To me, the nine, even ten players the Pelicans should be rolling with are Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik, Cunningham, Anderson, Babbitt, Withey, and Jimmer. Come on, Monty.

Force Hornets Outside: The Pelicans need to keep Charlotte on the outside. The Hornets are 29th in the league in three-point field goal percentage at 31.2%, sitting only above the Philadelphia 76ers. After Brian Roberts (35.8%) and Marvin Williams (35.7%), the Hornets are pretty bad here. Kemba Walker sits at 32.5% at 4.7 attempts per game and Gary Neal at 30.1% at 3.2 attempts. Force them to shoot threes.

Attack The Basket: The Hornets can’t guard the rim. Perfect time for Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to attack the rim. Tyreke Evans is now second in the league with 388 total drives on the season, shooting just 39.5%. Jrue Holuday ranks 10th in drives at 297, but is shooting 51.6% on them. Austin Rivers can be effective here if he can get to the basket, shooting 46.5% on 155 total drives this season. Get to the basket and garner free throws.

The Power Forward Trio: The Pelicans should be able to win this matchup throughout. We start with Anthony Davis, who outside of the Houston game looks good, Ryan Anderson is shooting 44.8% from three, and Cunningham, while more at the small forward position and in a smaller role, is doing a solid job. Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, and Dante Cunningham against Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller. Simply have to win that matchup.

With Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson already ruled out, I'm not only feeling good about this one but our upcoming stretch of games. This is a perfect time for the Pelicans to go on a nice winning streak to remain in the battle for the final spot in the Western Conference. A nice six or seven-game winning streak is in the cards. Let's Geaux Pelicans!

What: Pelicans at Hornets

Where: Time Warner Cable Arena

When: January 7th, 6:00 PM

How: Fox Sports New Orleans