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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans need to get back on right track against defensive-minded Utah Jazz

Anthony Davis is listed as questionable, but the vibe is a positive one in that he’s likely to play.

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Barring a potential meeting in the playoffs, the New Orleans Pelicans (38-27) will face the Utah Jazz (36-30) for a final time this season. Utah enters Sunday having won two of the first three matchups, so they could wrap up owing the tiebreaker between the teams with another win.

For New Orleans, the road to possessing the tiebreaker advantage over Utah is fraught with more difficultly. Not only would the Pelicans have to win tomorrow, they would need to also finish with a better conference record. Currently, the Jazz are 23-16 against the Western Conference while the Pelicans are 20-19. Yeah, the good guys have some games to make up!

Besides the tiebreaker business, we’ve reached the point in the season where it’s important for the Pelicans to simply win as many games as possible. New Orleans sits just three games from missing the postseason altogether, and if you haven’t been paying attention, the direct competition rarely loses! Thus, getting back into the win column while delivering a crucial loss to the Jazz would significantly help the playoff odds for the Pelicans.

Obviously, all eyes will be on Anthony Davis. After spraining his ankle in the win against the Sacramento Kings, he missed Friday’s contest against the Washington Wizards, a disappointing 116-97 loss. As of this writing, Davis is listed as questionable to play, but the general sentiment around the team is that he should be able to return to action.

That’s some relief because Utah features one of the largest starting front courts in the league, with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors manning the middle. In witnessing the debacle against the Wizards, the Pelicans interior defense was woeful once Emeka Okafor was off the floor, especially when Nikola Mirotic was asked to spend some time at center. Threekola is a versatile player, but asking him to bang against fives in the league and locking down the paint are not in his bag of tricks.

Biggest Key: Utilize lightning pace and score a ton of points

Prior to the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz won 11 games in a row and were an offensive juggernaut — something we witnessed firsthand in the 133-109 thrashing of the Pelicans last month. The Jazz made 14 of 21 three-pointers, and in general had no problem of finding offense wherever they looked.

Since the break, the Jazz have cooled significantly on offense (100.3 ORtg — 27th); however, their defense has risen to the occasion and then some. Utah was always a very good defensive team, but they’ve ratcheted it up several notches since that impressive winning streak was snapped. Check out how their defense has ranked across the NBA over the last eight games.

Defensive Rating Defensive Rebounding % Opp. Points Opp. FG% Opp. Freethrow Rate Opp. FBPS Opp. PITP
Pre All-Star Jazz 103.9 (6th) 79.4% (5th) 101.7 (4th) 46.0% (15th) .258 (16th) 9.7 (3rd) 42.3 (6th)
Post All-Star Jazz 93.1 (1st) 82.4% (2nd) 90.9 (1st) 40.9% (1st) .219 (4th) 8.1 (1st) 37.8 (1st)

A major reason for Utah’s defensive improvement has been the departures of Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood and the arrival of Jae Crowder. The former Cavalier has been reinvigorated by his new environment, one similar to the system he experienced while a member of the Boston Celtics where he was so successful.

Besides having Anthony Davis don his cape, the Pelicans best bet to circumvent the lockdown potential of the Jazz is to run, run, and run some more. They simply must find a way to score as many easy baskets as they can and their best (only?) chances will come in transition when Utah is attempting to get back in a timely fashion.

Geaux Pels!

What: New Orleans Pelicans vs Utah Jazz

Where: Smoothie King Center

When: March 11, 2018, 3:00 PM Central

How: FSNO, WRNO 99.5 FM