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Pelicans’ defense must rise to occasion in order to shock league-best Jazz

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The odds of victory are slim, but the game plan isn’t a mystery

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans will be hosting the best team in basketball Monday night and they’ve already been soundly defeated twice by this formidable opponent.

With an impressive 27-7 record, the Utah Jazz stand atop the Western Conference standings, 3.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers. Very few expected such a setting back in preseason and you have to think that no one’s imagination was wild enough to picture it after the Jazz began this campaign with a 4-4 record.

The script is straightforward: the Pelicans have to beat a Utah squad that has gone 23-3 since that .500 start. Sounds darn near impossible? It should. This Jazz team is wielding the best offensive rating and second-best defensive rating in the league over their last 26 games. They’ve been a buzzsaw on both ends of the floor.

In comparison to New Orleans over that stretch, none of the scoring numbers sit in the Pelicans’ favor. While Utah is averaging only a hair more points per game (118.6 vs 118.3), they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum defensively — hint: the much more desirable side — allowing far fewer points (105.3 vs 119.0) since beginning their remarkable run on January 8.

So, how did the Jazz drop a couple of games last month? By not getting the job done defensively. The Clippers won 116-112 on February 19 by shooting well from the field (48.3 FG%), and the same scene unfolded in a February 26 defeat where the Heat won 124-116 after making 51.2% of their field goals.

New Orleans Pelicans v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Important fact: when Rudy Gobert and company have allowed an opponent to shoot better than 46.5% from the field, the Jazz have won just two of those eight contests. Wouldn’t you know that one of those victories came against the Pelicans?

On January 21, New Orleans had no issues offensively in scoring 118 points on 49.4% shooting. The loss, however, resulted from the Jazz scoring 129 points on 50.0% shooting — including 17 made threes.

As I wrote in the last recap, New Orleans’ inability to keep points off the board has been their Achilles heel all season. The stats don’t lie. For instance, when the Pelicans have held opponents to a 46.5 FG% or worse, they’re 10-4 on the season. When it’s been above that figure, they’re 4-15.

It’s not difficult to understand why the Jazz are where they are in the standings versus the Pelicans’ position. One team is enjoying the fruits of slowing down the opposition the vast majority of time, the other is consistently watching their head coach explain inadequacies witnessed on the court in postgame.

There exists a small chance that New Orleans shocks the NBA world later today. An offense led by Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram is one of the best in the league. But emerging with a victory on Monday night probably still requires the rarest of combos: the Jazz struggling to keep an opponent at bay and the Pelicans putting the clamps on somebody.

It could happen, I guess.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (14-19) vs Utah Jazz (27-7)

When: March 1, 7:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: FSNOLA, NBA TV

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcheror Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.