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NBA Preview: Pelicans seek upset of Kawhi Leonard and Clippers to keep pace in playoff race

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Who will step up to the plate against the All-NBA tandem of Kawhi and Paul George?

Los Angeles Clippers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The NBA returned a few days ago and heartbreak was there to greet the New Orleans Pelicans less than three hours after its return.

The Pelicans lost 106-104 to the Utah Jazz following Brandon Ingram’s narrow miss from three-point range as the clock expired. The loss was especially frustrating due to the surge of momentum that took place from the 6:55 mark in the first to the 1:46 mark in the second. In those 17 minutes and 21 seconds, the Pelicans took an 11-point deficit and expanded it to a 16-point lead. It wouldn’t be enough though as the Jazz repeatedly attacked the paint in the third and fourth quarters en route to 56 points in the paint.

Each and every loss is critical with just seven games remaining. With the Trail Blazers and Spurs notching wins yesterday, they lurched ahead of the Pelicans in the standings. Portland and Memphis, though, should be considered the favorites for a play-in tournament, but the Pelicans still have every opportunity left to close the gap with the league’s easiest remaining strength of schedule that includes the Grizzlies, Kings, Spurs, Wizards and Magic.

Before they can capitalize on those downtrodden franchises though, they must first face Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers followed the Pelicans on Thursday night in a potential preview of the Western Conference Finals. They too suffered a narrow two-point loss at the hands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers as Paul George’s last second three-point attempt rattled out.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shines to the tune of 58 points on just 33 shots. The two were a sizzling 9-15 from three. However, help was hard to find with the absences of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Only Patrick Beverley (12 points) and Reggie Jackson (10 points) managed double-digits though the two needed 17 shots and nine free throw attempts to reach those meager numbers.

With the expected absences of two of the three favorites for 6MOY, the Clippers will seek to replace the offense they’ll lose with defense. They held the Lakers to just 39 percent shooting and just over 30 percent from three. Points could be hard to come by for New Orleans.

JJ Redick enjoyed one of his finest performances of the year against a depleted Jazz bench, but he won’t enjoy that luxury with Beverley across from him in this matchup. Jrue Holiday will likely earn the assignment of both Kawhi and PG for stints. While Jrue has enjoyed considerable success against PG on the defensive end, he himself confessed what a problem Kawhi is for him on the opposite end on his podcast.

In their lone matchup in which both PG and Kawhi played, the Pelicans lost by 25 points (November 14th) to the Clippers. However, Zion, Josh Hart and Derrick Favors were absent. The Pelicans split the other two contests, winning one without Kawhi and losing by three against Kawhi but without PG.

The Pelicans will need an improved version of Derrick Favors, who struggled against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz. Favors did outplay Harrell in both matchups earlier in the season though, averaging 21.5 points and 15.5 rebounds in the two contests. Favors will face Ivica Zubac in this contest, with Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green likely supplanting him in small-ball lineups. This is a battle the Pelicans must win.

Lonzo Ball will need to demonstrate more proficiency on the offensive end after converting just 2 of his 13 shots. More of Zion would help in that effort, as the duo were 13 points better than their competition in 448 minutes during the regular season.

Zion could be a lineup buster for the Clippers. Zubac is too slow to contain him. Patterson and Green don’t possess the athleticism to jump with him. But every offensive effort will mean nothing if he and Jaxson Hayes are turnstiles on the other end of the floor. Pairing Zion with Nicolo Melli could be a potential solution as could be pairing him with Josh Hart. However, will Zion get enough run to make a difference? It doesn’t seem likely.

“He will not play significant minutes in the next game and he may not in the following game, quite frankly,” David Griffin said on a media call yesterday after practice. “This is all about the ramp-up time, and he didn’t get the benefit of any of the things that his teammates got for those thirteen days. This is going to take some time, and I think it’s going to take time for him – he mentioned his flow and rhythm – it’s going to take time for him to find that.”

So, another highly restrictive game for Zion sounds likely. With six games against sub .500 teams remaining though, the Pelicans can theoretically afford another loss. However, stealing the win could go a long way toward ensuring their place in a seeding game.

But the Pelicans must show they can close games when the next opportunity presents itself, something they have yet to prove in 2019-20. The Pelicans are 29th in clutch win percentage, having won just 12 of 37 contests. They are 8-23 when tied or trailing by three points during the final five minutes of contests — good for dead last in WIN%.

Friend of the pod Antonio Daniels describes this as a learning curve that must take place for all young teams. However, a -32.8 rating is horrifying on paper, especially when you consider the All-Star caliber talent in addition to a good veteran presence of guys like Holiday, Redick and Favors. Maybe today will be different?

Thanks for reading. And let’s geaux, Pels!

Who: Los Angeles Clippers vs New Orleans Pelicans

When: August 1, 5:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: ESPN, FSNO

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.