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Pelicans most challenging stretch of season begins tonight against Nets

The next six games will greatly test New Orleans

New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The most challenging stretch of the season is here — well, for as long as a number of very important players continue to miss games.

The New Orleans Pelicans will welcome the fireball that is the Brooklyn Nets tonight and then immediately embark on a five-game road trip that includes stops in Dallas, Boston and Cleveland.

A lot has been made of the Pelicans posting a 5-1 record without Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. It’s an accomplishment worthy of appreciative head nods as previous editions of the Hornets and Pelicans wouldn’t have fared as well without their two biggest stars. However, let’s be honest, these next six games represent a much harder test.

That sparkling 5-1 record without BI and Z included four games at home and a lot of mediocre competition.

Conversely, the Nets have won 16 of their last 18 games. They’ll undoubtedly be looking to atone for the season-opening 130-108 loss to the Pelicans. A killer like Kevin Durant certainly won’t care that New Orleans isn’t anywhere close to full strength.

The Pelicans will then have to deal with five consecutive road games, where they’re 7-10 on the season and have won just once in their last six attempts.

That stats support the accompanying records. At home, the Pelicans have proven to be one of the best, boasting a +8.4 net rating. On the road, outcomes have been a toss-up overall (0.0 net rating) but a much scarier proposition of late (-7.8 net rating over last six road games).

Incidentally, the Nets had won seven straight away from Brooklyn until losing 121-112 in Chicago a few days ago.

Everything, of course, starts with Durant. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a career-best true shooting percentage of 68.0. He’s somehow become even more unstoppable.

The MVP-candidate hasn’t been asked to go it alone too.

Kyrie Irving has become a reliable force for the first time in several years, supplying 26.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Ben Simmons has regained his form, providing good defense, rebounding and playmaking. Nic Claxton is enjoying his best season as a pro, averaging 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. And there’s a cadre of outside shooters in Patty Mills (41.7 3PT%), Seth Curry (43.0%), Royce O’Neal (41.5 3PT%) and Joe Harris (37.8 3PT%).

Obviously, the odds are good that Larry Nance Jr. returns — perhaps as early as tonight — and there’s strong vibes emanating from the locker room that Ingram will shortly be back in uniform too. But until they are — and exhibit necessary basketball rhythm, the Pelicans are likely in for a treacherous next 10 days.

Buckle in.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (24-14) vs Brooklyn Nets (25-13)

When: January 6, 2023, 6:30 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.