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Lonzo, LaMelo Ball will sit center stage, but Pelicans eager to beat Hornets by defending well again

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Who’ll take round 1? Zo or Melo?

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 1 - New York Knicks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Pelicans-Hornets matchup airing Friday night on ESPN, expect for much of the media focus to be on the first ever meeting between two of LaVar Ball’s sons. While Lonzo admits that he’s looking forward to battling his younger brother LaMelo, he’s not lost sight of what’s ultimately important — New Orleans (4-4) getting back into the win column.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Lonzo Ball said after Thursday’s practice. “This is our first time matching up in a real game. But I think it’s a good opportunity for us to just get back on track. We’ve lost the last two, so we want to turn it around, and it starts tomorrow.”

Charlotte (3-5) arrives in New Orleans having snapped a three-game losing streak in their last outing by knocking off Atlanta, 102-94. Despite a sub-.500 record to date, this latest edition of the Hornets has proven to be an enjoyable watch.

In addition to selecting LaMelo Ball third overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, Charlotte acquired Gordon Hayward in a sign-and-trade with Boston. Adding those two vibrant players to a young mix that includes Terry Rozier, PJ Washington, Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham has made them competitive, and at times, good. All three of their wins have come against teams expected to find the playoffs this season: the Hawks, Mavericks and Nets.

For the Pelicans to wrap up their four-game home stand with a victory, they’ll likely have to get back to playing the stouter defense witnessed out of the gates. During the first five games of the season, New Orleans’ defensive rating ranked fourth in the league at 101.0. Over the last three games, that figure has dropped to 16th at 110.9.

“But our problem, over the last two games especially, is we’re not defending at a high enough level,” Stan Van Gundy said after yesterday’s practice. “Our offense is getting better. If we could be a top 10 defense and get into the top half offensively, which is we’re we’ve been this last short stretch, then that’s a pretty good formula for us to be pretty good.”

The Pelicans could realize immediate improvement on the defensive side by adhering to a principle likely to bring success: stopping the ball in transition. After giving up 27 fast break points a few nights ago, which resulted in a disappointing 111-110 loss to the Thunder, New Orleans prioritized transition defense in drills yesterday.

“Transition defense, transition defense, transition defense...transition defense,” Van Gundy said in describing Thursday’s practice. “And then getting into the ball, closing out harder, just everything at a much higher effort and energy level.”

With a seven-game road trip through the Western Conference beginning next Monday night in Dallas, it would boost hopes across New Orleans to see the Pelicans climb above .500 again before entering the gauntlet. It would also probably be a little beneficial for the players’ psyches, too.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (4-4) vs Charlotte Hornets (3-5)

When: January 8, 6:30 p.m. Central

Where to watch: FSNO, ESPN

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.