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CJ McCollum returns to Portland as Pelicans aim to maintain hold of 9th in the West

Zion Williamson is accompanying New Orleans on this four-game road trip

Orlando Magic v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans appear to be the lead car in a small race, but they haven’t remotely put enough distance between themselves and their closest competitors.

With last night’s defeat to the Mavericks, the Lakers slipped into the 11th slot in the Western Conference — and out of the Play-In Tournament picture. Although the Pelicans technically sit one game ahead of them and the Spurs in the standings, tiebreakers must be factored into the equation.

Having won the season series over the Lakers already, the Pelicans have in effect a two-game edge on them at the moment. The same can’t be said about the Spurs, however, as the Pels squandered an opportunity to seize the tiebreaker last Saturday. New Orleans needs to maintain a one-game lead or greater in order to stay ahead of San Antonio in the standings.

The best way to accomplish that mission is simply by winning. Fortunately, the Pelicans have fared well against the upcoming competition in the seven remaining games, posting a 9-5 combined record over these teams. Up first will be the 27-48 Trail Blazers, an opponent that the Pels will meet once again next week.

Portland was predicted to enjoy a much better campaign prior to the start of this season (FiveThirtyEight: 48-34), but obviously things failed to come together under rookie head coach Chauncey Billups. The majority of blame lies elsewhere.

Damian Lillard has only appeared in 29 games. Neil Olshey was fired on Dec. 3. After eight straight trips to the playoffs, the Trail Blazers decided to blow up their roster prior to the trade deadline.

New Orleanians know about this decision full well, as CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell were acquired for Josh Hart plus other players and assets.

Portland’s aim is to rebuild around Dame. A big piece of that puzzle is their 2022 first-round pick, which shall be retained with the Trail Blazers soon heading to the lottery. So piling up as many losses as possible is their front office strategy, and thus, a lengthy injury report isn’t a surprise.

While some of the injuries are no doubt legitimate, Portland certainly has a few that are worthy of an eye roll. There’s 11 players listed on their injury report, though, two are probable to play tonight: Didi Louzada and Greg Brown III.

Portland has won just twice since the All-Star break, posting a 2-14 W/L record. They’ve been the worst team by a wide margin, fielding a -20.6 net rating over this span.

In Monday’s loss to the Thunder, the Blazers had a starting lineup of CJ Elleby, Elijah Hughes, Keon Johnson, Brandon Williams and Drew Eubanks.

So yeah, the Pelicans need to beat these Trail Blazers ... soundly.

Not only is it preferable that key players don’t overexert themselves, Wednesday will mark McCollum’s first appearance inside the Moda Center since the trade. Let him enjoy the moment. His emotions will be running high and you can be sure the Trail Blazers will do something special for him this evening to mark the occasion.

“I think it’s going to be so much fun for everybody to have CJ back in the building,” Billups said. “He’s probably going to be overwhelmed with all the love that he gets from our locker room, the fans. It’s much deserved, so I’m happy to see him. I’m not happy to game-plan for him, obviously.”

.....

In other news, The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Will Guillory announced on Twitter that Zion Williamson is accompanying the Pelicans on this four-game road trip.

On Monday’s episode of NBA Today, Ramona Shelburne reported that Williamson is expected to take another step in his rehab sometime this week by progressing to 2-on-2 action in practices.

Zion being around the team more and moving closer to a return are good news, even if we don’t see him play until next season.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (32-43) at Portland Trail Blazers (27-48)

When: March 30, 2022, 9:00 p.m.

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.