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NBA Preview: Pelicans expected to face high-flying Cavaliers without Ingram

Jonas Valanciunas is listed as probable to play

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The outlook couldn’t look any more daunting after a relatively tame schedule of late.

Before they face the top three records in the NBA (Warriors, Suns, Jazz) and the champion Bucks, the New Orleans Pelicans must first clash with the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight.

There’s probably not a better story than these Cavaliers. Not even the Steph-led Golden State Warriors, who have amassed the best winning percentage in the league without a minute from Klay Thompson yet.

Darius Garland is enjoying a breakout third season, Evan Mobley has been that rare two-way force as a rookie, Jarrett Allen is anchoring the paint with double-doubles aplenty and Lauri Markkanen has found new life away from Chicago. Not to mention, Kevin Love has risen from the dead and Ricky Rubio has been a wonderful piece off the bench.

Many were higher on the Cavaliers than Las Vegas’ odds in preseason, but very few expected a 20-13 start and a legitimate shot to earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This was especially true after Collin Sexton was lost for the season to a torn meniscus in his left knee in early November.

Although the Cavaliers proceeded to lose 6 of 8 games after Sexton went down, they’ve been spectacular since, winning 11 of 14.

From November 27, no team has been stingier on defense, holding opponents to 99.8 points per 100 possessions. The offense has been good too, ranking fifth at 115.6 points per 100 possessions.

Cleveland hasn’t just been beating other teams — they’re demolishing them. In their last 11 victories, the Cavaliers have won by an average margin of 22.4 points, including a 144-99 massacre of the Raptors two days ago.

This really stands out because the Cavaliers have been dealing with mass casualties to the health and safety protocols list for over a week now.

Here’s the kicker: Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and/or others could return to action against the Pelicans. Not only have they been out for awhile, new league rules could expedite their returns.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported yesterday that the NBA has lowered the time vaccinated players have to remain in quarantine from 10 to six days “if COVID-19 testing data shows they’re no longer at risk to be infectious.”

To potentially further erode New Orleans’ chances against Cleveland, the Pelicans may be without Brandon Ingram and multiple others.

While the latest injury report lists Jonas Valanciunas as probable, Ingram left Sunday’s contest against the Thunder less than nine minutes in with a sore left Achilles. Considering that signals damage to the body’s most important tendon, it would behoove Ingram, who is listed as doubtful for Tuesday, to get a satisfactory level of rest and not rush back onto the court for a regular season game.

In addition, I fear that Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado may be welcoming unwanted company.

Three Thunder players that the Pelicans battled on the court less than 48 hours were placed in COVID protocols yesterday. With how incredibly infectious the Omicron variant is proving, the likelihood that New Orleans escapes Sunday’s encounter without a new case feels a toss-up at best.

I admit, I’ve been itching to see Cleveland play live since the start of this season, but the thought of who New Orleans may be without tomorrow has certainly decreased my level of enthusiasm. Here’s to being pleasantly surprised.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (12-22) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (20-13)

When: December 28, 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.