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NBA Preview: Time for New Orleans Pelicans to put up or shut up in key matchup against Memphis Grizzlies

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The Pels have handily beaten Ja Morant twice. Can they pull off the trick a third time?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans versus the Memphis Grizzlies.

When the eight seeding game schedule for the Orlando restart was released, this matchup was circled by many as can’t miss television. The Grizzlies were one of the feel-good stories and had a good grasp on the eight seed at the time, but the Pelicans were considered one of the two favorites (the Portland Trail Blazers being the other) that could potentially chase them down in the standings.

Fast forward to today and it feels like must-win territory for New Orleans. The Pelicans have failed to gain any ground on the Grizzlies a quarter of the way in, but worse, they’ve essentially fallen two games off the pace of the Spurs and Trail Blazers. The team that finishes in ninth and is within four games or less of eighth will trigger a play-in tournament that’ll determine the final seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.

There’s a good chance that New Orleans may have to win out to give themselves a credible chance of reaching that play-in tourney. Going small with DeMar DeRozan at the four has paid dividends thus for Coach Pop, and Damian Lillard and his group came ever so close to matching the San Antonio’s 2-0 bubble start after nearly coming back from 24 points down against the Boston Celtics yesterday.

Portland Trail Blazers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

As David mentioned in his recap of the drubbing at the hands of the Clippers, the Pelicans are going to have to start playing much better, and Alvin Gentry echoed similar sentiments yesterday after practice.

“The one thing is, is that we can’t do anything about the game last night. Obviously we were very disappointed in the Utah loss, but we controlled that game a lot of the time. I think what you have to do is – today one of the things that we did is that we showed a lot of positive things that we did over the course of the last 40 games that we played before the hiatus came. We saw ball-movement. We saw good defense. We saw good team defense. We showed a lot of that today because I think it’s important. Obviously we have some big games coming up, as you said, and we’ve just got to play good basketball.”

Having caught my share of games in this restart, the majority of teams have exhibited fantastic fire and surprisingly better execution than many predicted. In short, the basketball has been good so the bar is high. If New Orleans wants to crack the win barrier and knock off Memphis, they’re going to have to resemble the team that impressed for about three months prior to the coronavirus shutdown — like the squad that’s defeated the Grizzlies a couple of times on the season.

“I thought defensively we were really good in those games; we did a good job,” Gentry said yesterday. “I thought we did a good job offensively of playing in space, being able to create shots by our dribble-penetration. So that’s the way we’ll have to play them again. They do a lot of switching, and we’ve just got to make sure that we’re taking advantage of the switches…not to the point of trying to post the ball or force it in, but playing in space and having a good flow to our offense.”

In addition to displaying good execution on both sides of the ball, Brandon Ingram is going to have to perform like a team’s top option for close to every minute he’s on the court, Lonzo Ball has to provide some offensive versatility and ensure the team is running at the desired pace, and in general, multiple other contributors are going to have to make a positive impact.

It would certainly go a long way if in postgame we’re talking about Zion Williamson highlights rather than dwelling on his minutes played again.

While the Grizzlies have begun 0-2 in Orlando, they could very easily be 2-0. They lost in overtime against the Trail Blazers and a last-second foul of DeRozan cost them a victory versus the Spurs.

Memphis is healthier than the version New Orleans saw previously and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant have looked the part thus far in the restart.

The pressure is on. The odds of doing something memorable in Orlando are likely on the line. Can the New Orleans Pelicans rise to the occasion and notch their first bubble win?

Who: New Orleans Pelicans vs Memphis Grizzlies

When: August 3, 5:30 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 @OlehKosel.