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NBA Preview: Pelicans look to get back on track against Thunder to keep up in West

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Anthony Davis needs to be an MVP but controlling Steven Adams, not Russell Westbrook, is the biggest Pelican headache

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Just six games remain for our New Orleans Pelicans and good luck predicting where they finish in the Western Conference. At 43-33 they currently sit in 8th and with a little help could rise all the way to 4th by the end of the night. One game is all that separates New Orleans, Utah, Minnesota, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City in an incredibly crowded Western Conference. Looking down, the Clippers lie in wait just two games off the pace.

Make no mistake, the playoffs are already here. A win today counts double thanks to handing a playoff competitor a loss. New Orleans can secure tiebreakers over the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs in the coming week and a half as well. Relative gimme games against Phoenix and Memphis are still treacherous, just ask the Portland Trail Blazers (who lost in Memphis earlier this week) or Houston Rockets (who needed a buzzer beater to come out victorious over the Suns). Oh, and Golden State next weekend waits as they try to get back in gear for the playoffs.

I feel like 46 wins is enough to confidently put the Pelicans in the playoffs but it will take 48, and thus going 5-1 down the stretch, to assure they miss Houston and Golden State in the first round. 47 wins, and a 4-2 record, puts their playoff opponent potentially in the hands of tiebreakers. Eek.

New Orleans has already racked up two wins over the Thunder thanks to limiting the effectiveness of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has shot a paltry 13-40, 32.5% (!), against the Pelicans. Listen closely enough and you can hear "First Team All-Defense" when Jrue Holiday squares up to guard Westbrook tonight. The remainder of the Thunder big three has also struggled, especially Carmelo Anthony.

Yet outside of Jrue's defense on Westbrook, the real key tonight is how the Pelicans handle Steven Adams. Tonight is a great night for a heavy dose of Emeka Okafor, who was not in the lineup for the previous two matchups. Adams is a load to handle and with Anthony Davis looking less than 100% since spraining his ankle against Portland keeping AD as fresh as possible must be the goal.

Coach Gentry has lamented opponents success on the offensive glass after recent losses. A key thread connecting those struggles are the Pelicans going small. New Orleans must take an "all hands on deck" approach to rebounding when Steven Adams is on the floor, even if that limits their opportunities in transition. In their first matchup, with DeMarcus Cousins along, Adams had just three TOTAL rebounds. In their February game after Boogie went down Adams had seven OFFENSIVE rebounds alone on his way to a huge night.

Beside keeping Adams off the glass, New Orleans is going to need everything they can get from Anthony Davis while also having the role players show up too. I'm confident Jrue Holiday will be keyed up for this one, he always is when playing his former UCLA backcourt mate. AD should have a field day against Carmelo Anthony, and the Pelicans need him to take control and lead. Davis has made enormous strides in this area already this season. Now, with six games to go his franchise requires him to look like a MVP candidate every night.

What: Pelicans vs. Thunder

Where: Smoothie King Center

When: 5:00 PM

How: Fox Sports New Orleans, Fox Sports Oklahoma, NBA tv 99.5 FM WRNO