The New Orleans Pelicans will face the Houston Rockets tonight in a game that could mark their final attempt at making a legitimate push for the 2016 postseason. They trail the 8th seed Rockets by four games in the loss column, and with 24 games remaining on the schedule, it's vital the Pelicans emerge victorious against a team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.
The Rockets have endured a similarly disappointing season, failing to meet numerous expectations. Their 29-win and 31-loss campaign is a far cry from a 41-18 record one year ago. The Ty Lawson experiment turned out to be an abject disaster. Terrence Jones has vanished from the rotation. And reports emerged prior to the All-Star break that James Harden and Dwight Howard have not enjoyed playing with one another for some time.
That said, they are still very much in control of their destiny as to where the Pelicans need help with two teams sitting ahead of them in the standings. Unless a team inexplicably catches fire like the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans recipe is simple: win a whole lot more games than they lose over the final 6 weeks of the regular season. Exactly how many is anyone's guess, but they will likely require a stronger finish than last year's spurt.
Anthony Davis is scheduled to return to the lineup tonight after his one-game absence against the Minnesota Timberwolves. His latest injury has been coined as the dreaded turf toe. As David Wesley alluded to, these type of ailments can persist, sometimes for weeks. Regardless, the Pelicans can ill afford to wait for him to be 100% so Davis is going to have to find a way to gut it out.
3 Keys to Watch
- The performance of Trevor Ariza. Ariza has been a thorn in the Pelicans' side in their three meetings as he is averaging 20 points and 4 threes a game. His hot-shooting (8-12 from three-point range) was primarily the difference in the Pelicans 112-111 loss on January 25th. New Orleans simply must eliminate all of his free looks from the perimeter.
- The performance of the Pelicans' bigs not named Davis. One of two things likely have to occur: Either Ryan Anderson is going to need to make an efficient impact on the scoring side of the ball or the combination of Alexis Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins must limit Dwight Howard's offensive rebounding prowess and his amount of easy looks.
- Get off to a good start. The Pelicans are 2-14 on the year in road games they trail at halftime. Facing a Rockets' squad that has had issues with bringing the requisite intensity, it's important for New Orleans to get them to tune out early. A perfect scenario would entail Houston struggling from behind the arc while New Orleans turns a number of long rebounds into easy transition points.