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Pelicans face large challenge of beating Clippers to advance to 2022 playoffs

A special effort is required to beat L.A.’s battle-tested group

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans may be playing with house money, but that doesn’t mean anyone is ready to watch their uplifting season come to a conclusion.

A once unthinkable trip to the 2022 playoffs sits in the crosshairs, with the Los Angeles Clippers presenting the last remaining obstacle.

Both teams will battle it out Friday night, with tip-off scheduled for 9:00 p.m. CT, for the right to earn the eighth seed and a date against the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

Win or lose, this New Orleans season is already a success. Avid followers of the Pelicans fully comprehend the notion. As for the rest of the basketball world, likely not. I mean, how does a goof like this even happen on a nationally respected broadcast?

Five matchups between the same two teams are not possible within a regular season. Moreover, the Jalen and Jacoby program had the NOP-LAC record tilted in the wrong direction.

The Pelicans have beaten the Clippers three times, winning each contest by double digits. The only loss occurred in their most recent meeting, where L.A. surprised New Orleans with a razor focus and effective game plan.

That defeat snapped a five-game winning streak against Steve Ballmer’s team. Overall, the Pelicans own a 37-31 lifetime record versus the Clippers.

Tale of the Tape

The Pelicans posted a 17-24 away record and the Clippers went 25-16 at home during the 2021-22 regular season.

In perusing the advanced numbers since the All-Star break, the Clippers (7-3) have been quite good in L.A., but the Pelicans (7-5) have more than held their own on the road.

Team Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating TS% REB% AST/TOV
Pelicans (away) 114.3 (16) 111.5 (7) +2.7 (9) 57.0% (20) 52.4% (2) 1.72 (23)
Clippers (home) 117.9 (13) 110.1 (5) +7.8 (8) 60.0% (11) 49.2% (23) 1.98 (17)

We could delve into other team statistics, but here is what truly matters: looking at both these teams through a current healthy lens — minus Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson of course — these Clippers pose a formidable challenge.

While the Pelicans acquired a game-changer in CJ McCollum and versatile big off the bench in Larry Nance Jr., the Clippers vastly improved prior to the trade deadline too. However, it’s gone completely unnoticed due to injury.

Noman Powell and Robert Covington are significant upgrades over Eric Bledsoe, Keon Johnson and Justice Winslow. RoCo is a proven 3-and-D guy; Powell is a talented scorer.

Both players are coming off the bench for Tyronn Lue, behind a starting lineup of Jackson-George-Batum-Morris-Zubac which has a +6.1 net rating.

As I’ve repeated multiple times, the Pelicans starting group of McCollum-Ingram-Jones-Hayes-Valanciunas is excellent (+8.2 net rating), and Willie Green’s bench has been a positive performer since the start of February.

Here’s my main concern though: George has played next to Powell for just 16 minutes, and Covington, 51; however, when L.A.’s star has joined forces with either player, the Clippers have been a monster.

With these Clippers having lost to the Timberwolves in the 7-8 play-in contest on Tuesday, making a small sample size argument is absolutely fair. But I can’t shake the thought it may have been an aberration of sorts.

Lue is an incredibly talented coach, known for making brilliant adjustments. Case in point, we observed his winning game plan in the Pelicans’ 119-100 loss to the Clippers earlier this month.

The Clippers will be playing at home, where they’ve been really good all season regardless of who’s occupied the rotations, but now Lue has eight proven veteran pieces on the chess board in their starters, Covington, Powell and Terrence Mann. This doesn’t even include Isaiah Hartenstein, a productive low-cost free agent signing, and Luke Kennard, Los Angeles’ best floor spacer.

The Pelicans are going to have their hands full with multiple players who can score from a lot of different areas and carry plenty of experience from previous playoff wars. On the other end of the floor, New Orleans will have to contend with Clipper lineups that can switch very effectively.

It’s not difficult, for instance, to envision Jonas Valanciunas either struggling with foul trouble or simply getting played off the floor by L.A.’s small-ball lineups. While Karl-Anthony Towns was to blame for much of his ineffectiveness on Tuesday, the Clippers did an excellent job of frustrating a more athletic and versatile scoring center.

For the Pelicans to pull off the surprise victory — oddsmakers currently list them as 4-point underdogs, they’re going to have to dominate the paint by taking advantage of their size, while not allowing the Clippers to torch them from the outside. Los Angeles has seven players shooting 35.4% or higher from 3-point range. It could be eight if Reggie Jackson catches fire.

The Pelicans sit just one victory away from reaching the playoffs, but this last hurdle in the form of these somewhat under-the-radar Clippers presents a daunting challenge. Whether Willie Green’s coaching staff can craft a great strategy, CJ McCollum exploit weaknesses discovered during his film-watching sessions or Brandon Ingram just going supernova, it feels as though something of the sort is needed for the season to continue.

Let’s Geaux!

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Who: New Orleans Pelicans (36-46) at Los Angeles Clippers (42-40)

When: April 15, 2022, 9:00 p.m.

Where to watch: TNT

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.