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Pelicans vs Cavaliers matchup feels like must-win territory for New Orleans

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When will defense start to matter?

Cleveland Cavaliers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

After suffering their worst loss of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans (15-22) finish up a quick two-game home stand by facing the Cleveland Cavaliers (14-22).

There’s no need to dwell on what happened on Thursday night. My colleague, Oleh Kosel, has said what needs to be said about that debacle.

So, the Pels will face a Cleveland squad that won four of its last five games going into the All-Star break, including a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Cavs have done this without the services of Kevin Love, who has appeared in only two games so far this season and remains questionable at best for tonight’s matchup.

In his absence, third-year guard Collin Sexton has emerged as a dynamic scorer and playmaker. For the second straight year he’s increased his scoring average, posting career-highs in points (24.1 ppg), assists (4.5 apg), and steals (1.2 spg).

He’s been even better as of late. In those previous five games, he’s upped those averages to 30.2 points, 5.8 assists, and 2.0 steals. Only Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard have been hotter.

His efficiency as a scorer has taken a leap as well, with Sexton making 49.5 pct of his field goal attempts while shooting 49.5 pct from three-point range.

For a Pelicans defense that just surrendered 135 points to the league’s worst team, record-wise anyway, Sexton is the stuff of nightmares.

He’s joined by Darius Garland in the backcourt. Garland, in his second season, has proved to be a solid complement to Sexton. He had 25 points and nine assists in the win over Philadelphia, and is giving Cleveland more than 16 points per game. Another solid threat from deep, Garland is making more than 38 pct of his shots from beyond the arc.

Offense is always the focus when the Pelicans are being discussed; their lack of it at times, or the ease with which opponents execute theirs against one of the NBA’s worst defenses.

Scoring should come with relative ease for both teams. New Orleans and Cleveland rank 29th and 22nd in defensive rating, respectively.

They rank 28th and 29th in both opponent’s field goal percentage and three-point percentage.

While the onus will fall on Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, and company to slow down the SexLand backcourt, the Cavaliers’ frontcourt presents problems of its own.

Jarrett Allen has been holding down the middle since coming over from Brooklyn in a trade with the Nets. Allen, still only 22 years old, is blossoming on Lake Erie. Allen joins Rudy Gobert as the only players averaging at least 13 points, nine rebounds, and one blocked shot while shooting better than 60 percent from the floor.

Larry Nance Jr. is one of the most versatile frontcourt defenders in the league, and he’s added the three-pointer to his repertoire, shooting over 38 pct from distance. Nance has been coveted by the staff of The Bird Writes and Pelicans fans for some time.

Taurean Prince and JaVale McGee provide depth, experience, athleticism, and shot-blocking.

A team with 14 wins shouldn’t be considered a heavy challenge to a team seemingly as talented as the Pelicans. However, if that were the case, then New Orleans wouldn’t have lost to a seven-win team. Twice.

Individually, it doesn’t matter if Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, or Jaxson Hayes have good performances.

The Pelicans have shown that scoring 120 or even 130 points, sometimes isn’t enough for them to win.

Nothing matters this season, or the next, or the one after that, until the Pelicans can put a team on the court that cares about defense. Not for a quarter, or a half, but on a nightly basis.

By every statistical, observational, and anecdotal measure, the New Orleans Pelicans are a team that refuses to provide resistance to opposing offenses. There are mental mistakes, and far too often the opposing team’s field goal percentage seems higher than the level of effort given to defense.

“Quite honestly, we’re so bad defensively that we can’t have a bad offensive night,” said Stan Van Gundy after his team’s third consecutive loss. “We can’t even have a mediocre offensive night. If we have a bad offensive night, we’re going to get crushed like we did tonight because we don’t stop anybody. It affects our offense because we don’t get chances to get out and run in transition. Look, I understand it’s on me and what we’re putting out there defensively is embarrassing quite honestly.”

So embarrassing that fans, given the rare opportunity to watch their home team, decided to abandon the arena early. Those who stayed vocalized their displeasure.

Van Gundy voiced his confusion regarding his team’s apparent lack of competitive fire.

“I mean our defense has been a problem all year, but as far as our guys fighting to stay in games, I thought they’d been consistently doing that,” he said. “So why tonight was the way it was … I really don’t know.”

Neither do I. However, I’m not in charge of a franchise that may very well have a bright future ahead of it, but currently has four losing streaks of at least three games, but only one such winning streak.

A loss to Cleveland isn’t fatal mathematically, but how can this game be characterized as anything other than a must-win for a team about to face play eight consecutive opponents with winning records over the next 17 days?

Time is running out for the Pelicans to develop some sense of cohesion and intensity. It likely won’t happen without a shakeup of the roster.

Until the trade deadline has come and gone, Pelicans fans will just have to accept that they are riding a roller coaster through an unlit tunnel. All you can do is hold on, try not to lose your lunch, and wait for the ride to end.

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 @DMGrubb.