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Pelicans hope to snap 3-game losing streak, upend high-flying Luka Doncic and Mavericks

“It’ll be another defensive challenge”— Stan Van Gundy

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

After completing a 1-3 home stand and falling to 4-5 on the season, the New Orleans Pelicans now venture out on a seven-game road trip, the franchise’s longest in hoping to find themselves and their game.

Over the next 13 days, the Pelicans will face opponents with a combined 31-28 record, including the teams currently holding the second through fifth-best records in the stacked Western Conference.

The trip opens Monday night against the 5-4 Mavericks in Dallas, a place that the Pelicans have enjoyed limited success, and endured horrible losses over the years.

New Orleans is just 3-7 in its last 10 visits to Big D, including last season’s 130-84 defeat which remains the wost loss in franchise history. It also fell right in the middle of the team’s franchise-record 13-game losing streak.

In four games against the Mavericks’ high-powered offense, led by MVP candidate Luka Doncic, the Pelicans gave up an average of 124.5 points per game, more than any other team they faced.

Dallas, which set the NBA record for offensive efficiency last season, didn’t pick up right where they left off; ranking 20th in the league during their 2-4 start. Not having 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis available all season didn’t help.

However, over their last three contests, Dallas has come to life. In wins over Houston, Denver, and Orlando, the Mavericks have posted an ORTG of 115.7 (9th), DRTG of 104.3 (4th), with a +11.6 Net Rating good enough for second-best in the league.

Doncic has gotten back to MVP form, averaging 30.3 points, 12.0 rebounds. 11.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game over the last week.

And, late Sunday evening it was announced that Porzingis may be available to start on Monday.

This comes even as the Mavericks had to shut down their practice facility after forwards Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, along with guard Jalen Brunson, were all ruled out due to the league’s coronavirus safety protocols.

The Pelicans have been trending in the other direction, losers of three in a row. They’ve slipped tremendously on defense, and haven’t found a real consistency on offense. That’s a difficult combination to have to deal with against any team, let alone one as good and as well-coached as the Mavericks.

Their defensive load may be even heavier if center Steven Adams is unable to play.

Adams has been the Pels’ most impactful player on that side of the ball all season, and probably the team’s most consistent performer overall.

If Adams can’t go, Jaxson Hayes will have to provide significantly more than the 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.7 fouls in 10 minutes per night that he contributed against Indiana, OKC, and Charlotte.

But for the main responsibility for getting the Pelicans back into the win column falls on the starters.

Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, and Eric Bledsoe have been maddeningly inconsistent as individuals and as a group.

Early season unfamiliarity has led to slow defensive rotations and hesitancy. Their collective intensity seems curtailed at times by uncertainty about their own responsibilities and those of their teammates.

Both players and coach alike admit that the lessons seemingly learned in training camp are still in need of regular reinforcement.

Defense has always been described as being more about will than skill. I challenge that. Communication is a skill. As are knowing an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, understanding situational responsibilities, closeout techniques, boxing out, foot movement, and hand placement. All of which have lapsed for significant portions of games throughout the season.

At the outset of this road trip, the Pelicans must set a tone. For themselves, for the league, and for their fans.

Win or lose, they must compete defensively for 48 minutes.

Teams cannot feel safe driving to the basket. They cannot be given enough time to count the dimples on the skin of the ball before they shoot. They cannot be afforded the luxury of easy points in transition because the Pelicans couldn’t be bothered to run back.

Attempting to simply outscore the Mavericks, Lakers, or anyone else for that matter, is a fool’s errand.

The NBA remains a league where the teams that can get stops when they have to, tend to win championships.

Hostile crowds will not greet the Pelicans in these visiting arenas. They won’t have the comfort or the problem of distractions on this trip.

It’s airplane to hotel to arena to hotel to airplane to hotel to arena, etc.

Hopefully the Pelicans can get back to those basics that helped propel them out of the gate. Because, if they don’t, they could find themselves digging another early hole that they’ll be climbing out of for the rest of the season.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (4-5) at Dallas Mavericks (5-4)

When: January 11, 7:30 p.m. Central

Where to watch: FSNO, NBA TV

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 @DMGrubb.