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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans march to playoffs continues with stop against Phoenix Suns

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The Pelicans start final back-to-back against the banged up Phoenix Suns.

In the Western Conference playoff race, every game is crucial. With four games left on the regular season schedule, the Pelicans (44-34) are currently a half game up on both the Nuggets and Timberwolves, yet New Orleans fails to possess the tiebreaker against either rival, so Friday’s game against the Suns (20-59) is undoubtedly a must win to stay ahead of these closest pursuers.

Honestly, if you’re a playoff-caliber team below the third seed in the Western Conference, you’re just as close to a higher position than you are a lower one. Seriously, look how close things are.

If the Pelicans can add this crucial victory against the Suns, they’ll jump from 7th to 5th in the standings since they possess the tiebreakers over both the Spurs and Thunder. This isn’t asking for much as New Orleans rolls into Phoenix hoping to be able to take advantage of a team that has long ago started looking to next season.

Yes, the Pelicans still control their own destiny, but they’ve got to take care of business and the first step involves beating a young but very inexperienced Suns team. Phoenix, like most young teams at this point, are choosing to rest and coddle injuries. Not only do cellar dwellers hope to attain the highest draft pick possible, it also allows them to let their young talent gain valuable experience.

Veterans like Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Elfrid Payton are all expected to rest. Replacing them will be various first and second year players such as Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Tyler Ulis, and Josh Jackson. With that being said, let’s look into some key elements to look out for Friday.

  • Sorry Mr. Jackson?

The last time the Pelicans and Suns squared off it took a heroic 53-point outing from Anthony Davis for the Pelicans to leave victorious. In that game, however, Booker dropped 40 and Warren poured in 23. Without them, one would expect a majority of the offensive responsibility to fall on Jackson. This rookie himself recorded a double-double that night finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds.

Jackson’s role was much different at that time though. Now he’s been asked to be the focal point -- and he’s performed admirably. With superb length, smarts, and athleticism, he’s made up ground after his slow start to the season. It’ll be interesting to watch how the Pelicans gameplan for Jackson this go around.

  • Chance for rest?

Although not all back-to-backs are created equal, there exists a particular commonplace strategy: No matter the opponent, the objective is to have the first game decided early so that core players can get some rest before playing less than 24 hours later. Back in November, the Pels nearly pulled this off. With a matchup pending against the Golden State Warriors on the following night, the Pelicans were able to throttle the Suns, resting key guys by midway through the third quarter. This allowed New Orleans to start fast against Golden State, but unfortunately they couldn’t hang on in the second half.

While a sweep of the back-to-back didn’t occur then, there’s a lot more on the line this go around. Yet if the Pelicans want a legitimate shot for a win against the Warriors, they might want to take care of the Suns in quick fashion because Kevin Durant and company were thoroughly embarrassed by the Pacers on Wednesday evening.

  • The return of Instant Grits

With reserve guard Ian Clark scheduled to miss the next 5-10 days, the Pelicans are bringing back a familiar face: “Micheal” Jordan Crawford. While scoring hasn’t been the biggest issue for NOLA for much of this season, Crawford’s return provides a level of comfort during Clark’s absence. At worst, it’s a boost of energy and someone who knows the system very well. We know about his microwave-scoring abilities, but for a tired team, his fresh legs and smile could be a difference maker.

What: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Phoenix Suns

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

When: 9:00 pm Central

How: Fox Sports New Orleans, 99.5 FM WRNO