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Zion Williamson and Pelicans to be tested inside the paint by Rudy Gobert and Jazz

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There’s no Jazz in Utah, but there sure is rebounding, defense, and good chemistry

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Jazz (9-4) are big and good... as always.

The New Orleans Pelicans (5-7) will play their long-lost relatives in Utah to start a two-game mini series beginning Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on Fox Sports New Orleans and NBA TV.

Thanks in part to the return of former Pelican and long-time Jazz backup center, Derrick Favors, the Utah Jazz have the 6th-rated defense (106.5), 3rd-best rebound percentage (52.6), and 5th-rated net rating (+5.2). Simply put, the Jazz are winning by sticking to the basics: no gambles on defense, size and rebounding, and reliable play from a cohesive and deep cast of NBA veterans. Every piece matters on the Jazz roster and all minutes earners have clear defined roles and high expectations.

This team should to compete for home court advantage in the playoffs and a Western Conference Finals appearance, so it’ll be a major 2-game test for the Pels.

Big Battles

If you wanna see big boys bangin’ in the middle, this is the matchup for you.

Zion Williamson, Steven Adams and coach Stan Van Gundy’s game plan will use every last ounce of their collective brains and muscle to keep Gobert and Favors off the boards.

The Pelicans rank at the very top of the league in Offensive Rebound rate, Defensive Rebound rate and overall Rebound rate. But make no mistake, the Jazz sit right behind ranking 4th, 12th, and 3rd in those categories, respectively. Gobert led the league in dunks last season and is always near the top in blocked shots; he’ll surely finish in the top 3 in both categories again.

You know what to tell ‘em, Stan:

NAW Still Raw

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has found himself in the Pelicans starting lineup for the previous three games, including his 37-point blockbuster against the Clippers. We here at The Bird Writes couldn’t be happier to see more playing time for the summer league Hall of Famer.

Still in just his second year, NAW is a curiosity. Is he a “lead guard” who can run the offense or is he more of a pure shooting guard? Can he hold up defensively? Is his shot creation for others on the same level as his ability to get his own? There’s a lot to discover with NAW still, but keep an eye on his vision, turnovers, and free throw attempts (13 FTA in 12 games).

One thing that could limit NAW’s time on the court in the immediate future, Lonzo Ball is expected to return to action very soon, possibly even tonight. Per Andrew Lopez of ESPN:

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said Ball was a full-go for Monday’s practice when the team did about 45 minutes of on-court work, and they’ll see how he’s feeling Tuesday before making a decision on letting him play. New Orleans officially listed Ball as questionable.

“I feel a lot better,” Ball said. “Went through practice for the first time today and it felt good. Plan is definitely to play tomorrow.”

Conley Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Donovan Mitchell is the guy, but Jazz guard Mike Conley has gotten off to a good start this year after generally uneven results from his first year in Utah, particularly shooting the ball from deep. The man with no career technical fouls (WOW) is shooting 42.2% from the 3-point line, taking almost 7 per game, a career-high.

He’s surrounded by other ball-movers, playmakers, shooters, and bigs, so Conley’s usage and free throw rate plummeted from his time in Memphis. But this team doesn’t need All Mike Conley All the Time. The offense features young star Donovan Mitchell running a lot of pick-and-roll with Gobert, plus 6th Man of the Year candidate Jordan Clarkson and even Georges Niang coming off the bench to playmake.

The H.O.R.S.E. champion from April 2020 (remember that??) can make shots with either hand and he’s typically a knock-down free throw shooter, but Conley missed all four of his attempts in a close win against Denver Sunday. He’s shooting just 69.2% at the free throw line this season. I’d imagine he’ll start making 4 out of 4 most nights.

Conley is averaging 16.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 6.0 apg in 30.1 minutes per game.

Geaux Pelicans!

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (5-7) at Utah Jazz (9-4)

When: January 19, 8:00 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 @Trabeta.