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NBA Preview: Zion Williamson descends upon Chicago, available to play against Bulls despite right toe sprain

New Orleans Pelicans look to snap a two-game skid.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now or never.

The New Orleans Pelicans (20-31) will return to the court Thursday night, this time on the road against a hungry Chicago Bulls (19-33) team. Like the Pelicans, the Bulls are fighting for a spot in the post season. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have now fallen six games off the pace in the Western Conference playoff picture. However it wouldn’t be the Pelicans if they didn’t leave us a glimmer of hope which they can use to rip our hearts out at the last minute.

A six game deficit may seem insurmountable — and it probably is — but New Orleans owns the NBA’s second easiest remaining schedule with 31 games remaining. New Orleans is 14-9 since their torturous 13-game losing streak. That works out to a .642 win percentage, which was accomplished against a much tougher portion of their schedule. Should the Pelicans keep that pace they would finish the season 39-43; that might be enough to grab the final spot in the Western Conference.

Before the Pelicans can worry about getting out of the first round they will need to take care of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center Thursday night. This is the second meeting between the teams this season. In the previous matchup the Pelicans beat the Bulls 123-108 in the Smoothie King Center.

Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson missed that contest and will be making his first professional start in Chicago. For a short period it appeared that the Bulls might not face Williamson as Pelicans PR announced Zion was questionable for the Bulls game with a right toe sprain. However, Williamson was later upgraded to “available” for Thursday’s game. The only other players on the Pelicans injury report were forward Kenrich Williams (back) and forward Darius Miller (Achilles).

The Bulls enter this game short handed as their roster has been plagued by injury. Chicago has ruled out four players including guard Kris Dunn, center Wendell Carter Jr, forward Lauri Markkanen, and forward Otto Porter Jr. Bulls guard Denzell Valentine and center Daniel Gafford are listed as doubtful.

While Chicago will be missing key guys, they still have a few players that can hurt the Pelicans. New Orleans defense should focus on stopping Bulls leading scorer Zach LaVine. LaVine is averaging 24.9 points per game this season and is having one of the best shooting years of his career. Despite his solid numbers, Lavine remains a notoriously streaky scorer. If the Pelicans allow him to get going, it could make for a long night. It’s likely Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday will be tasked with slowly Lavine down.

The Pelicans should have the Bulls out manned due to the sheer number of injuries Chicago is currently dealing with. With both of Chicago’s starting big men out for this game, I would expect Zion Williamson to potentially have a huge night.

On paper New Orleans should easily beat the wounded Bulls. The Pels will have to protect the basketball to prevent the upset. New Orleans ranks 28th in the NBA in turnovers, committing 16 per give aways a game. Another sloppy game could allow the depleted Bulls to stay in the game with easy fast break points.

In these teams previous meeting, forward Brandon Ingram had a double-double scoring 29 point to go with his 11 rebounds. This would be a great game for the Pelicans All-Star to follow up that performance with another gem. Given their injuries, the Bulls have very few options to guard Ingram on the perimeter.

New Orleans is catching Chicago at the perfect time. This is a game they have to win if they want to keep their faint playoff hopes alive for another week. Let’s hope the team doesn’t play down to it’s competition in this one.

Where To Watch/Listen

What: New Orleans Pelicans (20-31) vs Chicago Bulls (19-33)

Where: United Center, Chicago, IL

When: Thursday, February 6th, 2019 7:00 PM CST

Watch: FOX Sports New Orleans

Listen: ESPN Radio 100.3 FM