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NBA Preview: Pelicans entering matchup against Thunder with Ingram playing at elite level, Nickeil desperate to beat Shai

New Orleans getting back in the win column tonight?

Detroit Pistons v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Pelicans, the cellar dweller in the Western Conference, will battle the Thunder, a team sitting right above them in the NBA standings.

The current ordering makes sense. No squad got off to a slower start this season than New Orleans, who lost 12 of their first 13 games. Additionally, they’ve already lost to OKC, a 108-100 defeat that witnessed several players lose their cool — the Pelicans were whistled for five technical fouls, with Josh Hart’s two, that resulted in an ejection, leading the way.

Flaring tempers have thankfully proven to be a rarity, but the bigger observation to note from the last matchup is that Brandon Ingram didn’t participate. While BI’s season stats are largely on par with prior years, there’s little doubt for onlookers that we’re in the midst of witnessing an improving player.

Over the last seven games, Ingram has honestly looked like one of the best players in the league. That’s not hyperbole. 11 players are averaging 25 points, five rebounds and five assists since November 29, but no one has produced the eye-popping numbers more efficiently. Considering the amount of playmaking responsibilities on his shoulders, 1.7 turnovers per game is an insanely low figure.

“I’ve seen a lot of great BI,” Nickeil Alexander-Walker said after yesterday’s practice in response to whether this is the best stretch of Ingram’s career. “But I’ll definitely say yes because he’s getting better with time. He’s someone who grows, cares about the game and works hard.”

According to the on/off data, Ingram’s been a certifiable game-changer.

When the star forward has been on the court during this stretch (256 minutes), the Pelicans offense is humming along at a sparkling 117.8 offensive rating. When Ingram’s sat (85 minutes), the offense has been abysmal, posting a team-worst 94.1 offensive rating.

For comparison, the next lowest figure among players off the court belongs to Jonas Valanciunas with a much more palatable 106.3 ORTG.

Some will point to a 3-4 record over the last seven-game stretch in an attempt to belittle Ingram’s production, but that’s not right. He hasn’t received enough support. Next to Valanciunas’ 19.6 points and Hart’s 10.8 PPG, 10.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists, the rest of the roster is struggling with consistency — specifically the guard rotation.

Losing Kira Lewis Jr. to a season-ending ACL tear is more glaring than most think. NAW and Devonte Graham are both shooting under 36% from the field, and admittedly, they’ve been more cold than hot all too often. Garrett Temple (34.3 FG%) and Tomas Satoransky (36.8 FG%) have not been band-aids the front office thought they were receiving in the Lonzo Ball trade.

Someone from this group is going to have to start playing better. It’s as simple as that. And with tonight’s matchup in OKC, NAW is the guy to watch after putting up a line of 33 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against his cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“I’m excited anytime you get to play against family and stuff,” Alexander-Walker said in a fun-loving manner about his family rivalry yesterday. “I just want to win. I need to beat {Shai}. I’m tired of hearing it, honestly.”

The Pelicans are 7-9 since their 1-12 start. Many in New Orleans want to see a higher frequency of wins from the team, even in wake of Zion Williamson’s latest setback.

With Ingram flying high — and Lu Dort listed as out with a left ankle sprain — plus NAW having all the inspiration necessary, one should like the odds of seeing the Pelicans get back in the win column.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (8-21) at Oklahoma City Thunder (8-18)

When: December 15, 2021, 7:00 pm

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass

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.