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NBA Preview: Pelicans face Gordon Hayward and 4th-seeded Jazz for first time this season

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New Orleans and Utah: two teams trending in opposite directions after once being labeled together as teams to watch in the Western Conference.

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans (20-32) will host the Utah Jazz (33-19) on Wednesday evening at 7pm CST, marking the first meeting of the season between these two teams. Both Fox Sports New Orleans and Root Sports will televise the game while WRNO 99.5 FM will provide the action over the airwaves.

Less than two short years ago, the Jazz and Pelicans were commonly grouped together in the next wave of up and coming teams to watch in the Western Conference. The Pelicans were expected to build on a 45-win season while the Jazz were primed to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Well, one team is currently gearing up for a deep playoff run while the other is in scramble mode, trying to figure out how best to move on from the disappointment of successive seasons. I’m sure I don’t need to clarify who’s who, right?

The Pelicans snapped a 4-game losing streak against the Suns on Monday, but the Jazz will represent an entirely different challenge. Utah sits on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to pace, operating at the league’s slowest rate. In addition, they hold opponents to the lowest FG% in the league (43.5%) and are tied with the Pistons for being the stingiest team when it comes to opponent fast break points per game (10.7).

Consequently, one of the things to watch will be which team’s style prevails. New Orleans is 7th in the league in fast break points (15.2) on the season, but have averaged 17.7 fbp over the last 20 games. A high number of transition points would help counteract Utah’s tough half court defense that is led by Rudy Gobert in the paint and a number of active perimeter players that push opponents off the three-point line.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The head coach, Quin Snyder, has done a wonderful job of taking advantage of the team’s natural strengths to stop opponents, and he does the same thing on the other end, relying on execution and passing over speed and quickness to find scoring opportunities. The Jazz average right around 320 passes a game — about 20 more than the Pelicans — as they patiently try to always work the ball side-to-side.

At the center of Utah’s offense is a small forward who still doesn’t get enough acclaim in the league in my book, Gordon Hayward. For the first time in his career, he is averaging north of 20 points per game, 22.2 to be exact. Hayward can shoot from the outside, get to the rim or set up teammates with good looks. For his efforts, he will be in New Orleans in less than two weeks time making his first All-Star appearance.

Similar to Anthony Davis typically leading the Pelicans in scoring, Hayward fills the same role for the Jazz. He has been Utah’s leading scorer in 30 of their 52 contests, and has really been on a tear here in February. Through three games, Hayward is averaging 30.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 threes and 2.0 steals. The star that shines brightest for his respective team may also walk away the winner.

Geaux Pelicans!