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If Zion, Pelicans hope to beat Nuggets, slowing Michael Porter Jr. might be biggest key

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Nikola Jokic is the favorite for the 2021 MVP, but stopping Batman’s Robin could lead to success for New Orleans

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

After shocking many with a 120-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Monday, the New Orleans Pelicans will likely need to repeat the feat against another top 4 team in the Western Conference tonight if they want to continue their improbable climb towards a spot in the upcoming play-in tournament.

While the Nuggets will not be at full strength against the Pelicans — missing Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Monte Morris, injuries have not derailed them. Denver is 6-1 since losing their star guard to a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee.

As most would correctly surmise, Nikola Jokic is the man responsible for keeping hope alive that another deep playoff run could be sitting on the horizon in Denver.

Since Murray’s injury, the Nuggets starting center is averaging 26.4 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists. If Jokic maintains this pace and Denver continues to post more wins than losses, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else walking away with the 2021 MVP Award. With that being said, Jokic hasn’t been the only member of the Nuggets balling of late.

Michael Porter Jr. has picked up the slack in Murray’s absence, averaging 25.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and an astounding 4.4 threes. Stephen Curry’s been hotter than the sun since the calendar flipped to April, but over the last seven games, Porter has burned the nets at a better clip than any other 3-point volume shooter in the NBA.

The biggest key to victory for the Pelicans in my eyes won’t be slowing down Jokic but limiting Porter’s looks. And the scary thought is that responsibility will likely fall on either Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram — two wonderfully gifted offensive fireballs in their own right but well-documented below average defenders.

NBA: New York Knicks at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In a bit of good news, James Johnson is listed as probable after having missed the last four games due to a right adductor strain. His length and veteran savvy could be Stan Van Gundy’s best option in trying to keep Porter at bay.

Aaron Gordon, PJ Dozier and Facundo Campazzo should round out the rest of the Nuggets starting lineup and this is where Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe and Ingram or Zion must seize the advantage. Gordon doesn’t look for his shot as much as he did with the Magic, Campazzo would much rather drop dimes and Dozier’s efficiency has suffered greatly since being asked to shoulder more of the scoring load.

Entering Wednesday’s contest, the Pelicans have split the season series against the Nuggets. In a 113-108 road victory on March 21, Williamson and Ingram each scored 30 points and Nickeil Alexander-Walker added 20. Five days later, Williamson went nuclear in dropping a career-high 39 points on 16-19 shooting from the field, but the Pelicans lost 113-108 at home as he failed to get enough help.

On a given night, New Orleans is liable to beat any opponent in the league as they’ve proven time and again. Having Zion certainly provides for one of the best wildcards in the game; however, he doesn’t wear a red cape.

If the Pelicans want to beat the Nuggets, the best recipe requires a total team effort. Similar to how so many stepped up against the Clippers.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (27-34) at Denver Nuggets (40-21)

When: April 28, 8:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans

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.