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Pelicans eager to notch victory over Suns for Willie Green

The New Orleans head coach will have the services of Zion Williamson for the first time against Phoenix. That’s big.

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

They’ve met since the Suns sent them home with a first-round playoff series exit, but don’t mistake tonight’s matchup as any run-of-the-mill game on the schedule for the Pelicans.

“Both teams are really good,” Willie Green said after yesterday’s practice. “We played these guys last season in the playoffs. They moved on, we didn’t. We’ve been talking about it. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Since Green’s arrival, the Suns have had the Pelicans’ number. A year ago, they won three of four in the regular season and then disposed of New Orleans in six hard-fought postseason games. They already own a victory this season too, a 124-111 defeat of the Pelicans in Phoenix on Oct. 28.

For those who like to keep track, Green’s Pelicans are 3-8 against Monty Williams’ Suns.

The natural question is, does a rivalry exist? There’s little doubt that regional fans would respond in the affirmative and it sounds like the players genuinely believe so as well.

“I feel like both teams are going to go into it with a little bit of gusto whether its because of last year’s playoff series or just because we’re 1-2 in the standings,” Larry Nance said yesterday. “There’s a little bit to it. I’m not giving you guys anything I don’t know, but shoot, I hope Jose plays because that just adds more to the game with that little rivalry or whatever you want to call it.

“Playing Phoenix is a game we’re always going to get up for, just if for no other reason than 1-2 in the standings, and you always want to beat someone’s former team. We’re all trying to get this one for Willie.”

It might be asking too much of Jose Alvarado to get back on the court, though, after suffering a nasty collision against the Pistons, where he appeared to seriously injury his rib cage area.

“In the spirit of the World Cup, there are guys that are going to roll around and flop around on the ground trying to get a call for something — Jose is not one of those guys,” Nance said. “When you saw him in pain like that, you knew that he’s not faking it. I don’t think we have guys who will milk an injury.”

While it was good to see Alvarado return to bench and watch teammates put away Detroit a few days ago, playing up to his standards in what’s sure to be extremely hard minutes against Chris Paul may not be in the cards. Human bodies need time to heal, even if one possesses the heart of the Little Engine That Could.

If Alvarado can’t suit up (he’s listed as questionable), he’ll join Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones on the sidelines, but New Orleans should still be stronger than they were in that Oct. 28 meeting.

Ingram, Jones, Dyson Daniels and Zion Williamson all didn’t play due to injury in that early season loss. And right now, Williamson is on some kind of tear, carrying the Pelicans like a real MVP candidate during their five-game winning streak.

Don’t forget, Willie Green has never had the pleasure of writing in Zion Williamson’s name into the starting lineup against the Suns. That’s big. There are so few game-changers like Z.

The Suns will also not be at full strength, with Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear) and Duane Washington Jr. (left hip muscle strain) listed as out on Phoenix’s injury report; however, Devin Booker has been playing as well as anyone all season.

So, Friday’s contest is going to have a playoff-like atmosphere even without key players. In addition to recent history, it features a meeting between the top two teams in the West and one can be sure that New Orleans doesn’t want to slip even a spot down the standings after everything that’s transpired over the past year.

On Dec. 8, 2021, the Pelicans had a 7-20 record, sitting in the cellar of the Western Conference. 365 days later, they’re No. 1.

“It’s just a credit to God and all the blessings that He’s given us on this team,” Green said. “It took a lot of work for all of us to sort of climb our way out of a hole. We got healthy towards the end of the season, we made a great run, and now this is a continuation of what this team did last season.

“I’m extremely privileged, grateful and blessed to be in this position. I know it’s early, but we’re definitely celebrating where we are, while knowing that we still have work to do.”

It’s easy to gleam the importance of this matchup because Green hasn’t talked about the upcoming stretch of facing the Suns three times in nine days with many close friends within the Phoenix organization.

Here’s to Zion and the rest of the healthy Pelicans providing Green some ammunition just in case the topic does turn to basketball during his next call or text with Monty.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (16-8) vs Phoenix Suns (16-9)

When: December 9, 2022, 7:30 p.m. CT

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

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.