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NBA Preview: Pelicans visiting Philly Sunday, aiming to hand Sixers a loss

Graham, Hart have been essential pieces in recent wins

Philadelphia 76ers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Fresh off yet another victory, the New Orleans Pelicans will take on an up-and-down Philadelphia 76ers team on Sunday, looking to avenge an opening night loss.

Philly has lost three straight and sit down in the Eastern Conference standings with co-disappointers Boston, New York, and Atlanta. If they want to separate themselves and shoot up to the Cleveland/Chicago/Miami level, the wins better start piling up now. Ben Simmons is still on the roster and gathering unknown amounts of trade interest.

The Pelicans, meanwhile, are within shouting distance of the 10th place Sacramento Kings after wins in three of their last four. Brandon Ingram has been great, but it’s a team game and Josh Hart, Jonas Valanciunas, and Herb Jones are contributing in huge ways each game.

Graham Goods

Devonte’ Graham shoots 3s. You knew that.

We’re just a mere days removed from his miracle heave at the gun in Oklahoma, and he turned that incredible make into a hot performance from behind the arc to finish the win vs. Milwaukee Friday night. Graham finished with 26 points, but 17 came in the 4th and overtime — this guy is clutch!

But, man, his overall shooting stats aren’t there, particularly from 2-point range (39%) and he doesn’t get to the free throw line (14.8% free throw rate this year, nearly half of his previous seasons output). Graham is a gamer and confident shot-taker, for sure, but we may be glossing over wild and missed shots to focus on those incredible makes.

Here’s hoping Mattise Thybulle mostly guards Brandon Ingram, as his length and quickness could cause real problems for the much smaller Graham.

Josh Hart Fills The Void

Sometimes, literally. Against a ton of Milwaukee Bucks zone defense possessions, while off-ball, Hart was an ideal man to flash to the middle of the floor, find space, and keep the ball moving. As with most teams, when the ball stands still, the offense stinks. Hart moves it.

He had 11 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists vs. Milwaukee.

Josh rarely runs pick-and-rolls for a guy who collects as many assists as he does, but it’s every single other type of possession where he excels.

Other times, this team desperately needs pace. Hart is the best at collecting boards — sometimes they’re long rebounds 20 feet away from the rim, other times he’s skying to battle with bigs in the paint — and the man is off to the races. His gather and gallop, seemingly always off the wrong foot, is becoming an every-game sight and reliable offensive weapon. It’s also a good way to get to the free throw line.

He’s taking more than four possessions per game in transition, easily the most on the team, and has an 71.9 eFG% and 62% scoring frequency, basically tops on the team. He’s 7th in the league in points per possession in transition for those who have taken at least 3 possessions per game. That’s up there with Zach LaVine, LeBron James, and Jimmy Butler. He’s also got a higher free throw rate than any of those ahead of him.

There’s no better player on this roster ‘in random’ maybe outside of injured Kira Lewis Jr. and his combination of speed, handles, and vision when combined with his effort plays makes this guy the ultimate fan favorite and desired piece for any top-of-the-standings club.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (10-21) at Philadelphia 76ers (15-15)

When: December 19, 2021, 6:00 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 @Trabeta.