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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans begin most important road trip of season against Minnesota Timberwolves

Will the Pelicans be at full strength?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans start a five-game road trip Saturday in Minnesota, and it only begins the most critical stretch of the schedule encountered to date.

Three consecutive victories for the first time since mid-November have New Orleans (20-22) walking into the new year with a renewed vision. The team holds a league-leading net rating of 24.1 in that span, surprisingly bolstered by its defense. Though it must be noted, this win streak developed as a trouncing of the Memphis Grizzlies separated a pair of meetings with the bottom-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers.

Still, a team accustomed to trotting out a bottom-ten defense for the better part of this season will welcome an inspirited advancement on that end of the floor against any opponent.

And it will be needed. We all know the Pelicans can score in bunches, but the resolution as of late to play this way must find a more consistent existence with utmost dispatch.

“We’re competing and playing harder,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “As far as the system, we haven’t really changed much at all. I think we went back and put a lot more emphasis on team-first situations.”

The Pelicans, who are 5-16 on the road, have a heap of unpleasant play to put behind them. Time is not on their hands any longer and neither is the jumble that is the West. New Orleans was fortunate, for a period of time, that no one distanced themselves in the standings. Now, every conference foe acknowledges the urgency level reached. The race is on, and the clock is ticking.

With time, this is becoming a new team. Maybe not a ‘new car’ kind of fresh, but the closest it’s been to restoring the group that started 4-0 in October. Point guard Elfrid Payton returned to the lineup on New Year’s Eve after missing 31 games, and forward Nikola Mirotic did the same Wednesday following 12-straight missed contests. E’Twaun Moore is likely to get back from his left quadriceps contusions soon, too, and will give the Pelicans a complete rotation.

New Orleans firmly believes, when at full strength, it can compete with anybody.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re getting healthy,” Davis said. “We’ve never had a chance to see how good we can be because we haven’t been healthy, but when we get healthy we’ll be able to see what our team can actually be like. I think it’s shown the past two games and [vs Cleveland] with Niko back.”

Well, a test is arriving before the month’s end. The five-game road trip beginning with the Timberwolves also headlines the Clippers, Warriors, Trailblazers and Grizzlies. Eight of the ten remaining games in January feature teams currently sitting in playoff position.

Just three games back from the eight seed, New Orleans has something to prove. Will this be the same team witnessed in the first four games? Can they truly compete in the West? It’s a challenge the players understand and accept. Answers are on the way shortly, and the outcome will indicate to Pelicans brass how aggressive to be approaching the upcoming trade deadline.

“Guys are getting comfortable,” Holiday said. “This road trip is going to be tough, but it’s going to be fun.”

‘Critical’ doesn’t describe what’s ahead well enough. Through this circus of playoff contenders in the Western Conference, New Orleans is going to have to showcase the best stretch of basketball we’ve seen since the playoffs a year ago - and mostly away from home. Should that happen, leadership would be prompted to make one final push at more talent in an attempt to sway the 25-year-old Davis to accept a super-max contract extension this summer.