HomeBasketball TodayPelicans face LeBron James and Stephen Curry on road to playoffs

Pelicans face LeBron James and Stephen Curry on road to playoffs

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The Pelicans have a tough road ahead and a lot of competition to avoid the NBA Play-In Tournament.

The NBA Season is about three-quarters finished and the sprint to the postseason, or draft lottery, is now in top gear for every franchise. The Boston Celtics are running away with the regular season title but the NBA Playoffs are the true prize. Unfortunately for the New Orleans Pelicans, their schedule down the stretch appears tougher than most expected at the start of the season.

The Pelicans were reminded of their late-game meltdowns on their first nationally televised game since the NBA All-Star break. A loss to the Indiana Pacers dragged New Orleans back into the NBA Play-In Tournament morass. Willie Green’s then fifth-placed group had an opportunity to close the gap to fourth but instead fell back to just a half-game above the seventh-placed Dallas Mavericks.

Willie Green’s Pelicans needed a win in a March 1 home rematch against the Pacers to again jump the Phoenix Suns for fifth. Much like Matt Damon’s Mike McDermott in Rounders, New Orleans is doing a lot of rough work to just wind back up where they started. The Big Three of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum also have a lot of All-World competition in trying to avoid the Play-In elimination rounds.

Pelicans fighting for fifth, home court advantage in sight

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) moves the ball up court against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half at Crypto.com Arena.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans are playing standings musical chairs with six franchises trying to find a way to land in one of the two secured seats. The fifth- and sixth-placed teams will get a week-long break before starting a seven-game series. Seventh through tenth will fight tooth and nail in the shorted elimination Play-In rounds. Thankfully for New Orleans, the franchise has a small advantage over the field over their last 22 games.

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The Phoenix Suns have the most challenging end-of-season slate to navigate. Kevin Durant has to drag his new franchise through four back-to-back sets and 13 road games in the next six weeks. Bradley Beal is likely to be unavailable for at least half of those matchups, if not more. New Orleans should be able to leapfrog the Suns under those circumstances.

Chasing down the Los Angeles Clippers is also a possibility. A home-court advantage in the four vs. five series means more for less experienced teams like the Pelicans. Kawhi Leonard is healthy but L.A. has six back-to-back sets over the next six weeks. Facing the 12th-toughest remaining schedule, Ty Lue will look to limit his All-Star’s miles before the postseason.

The Pelicans do not have the resume to rest on their laurels. Leonard does, especially if Paul George and James Harden keep the Clippers comfortably in fourth place.

Pelicans playing with NBA Play-In fire

The Pelicans, flaws and all, do not have to worry about the other teams if they take care of business. Protecting home court and closing out games against lottery teams have been issues all season though. New Orleans has squandered 17 double-digit leads already. If they had won just half of those games, the Zion Williamson-led team would be sitting in first place in the Western Conference.

The Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, and Golden State Warriors are occupying the NBA Play-In spots as of March 1. Facing Luka Doncic, LeBron James, or Steph Curry in an elimination game is not ideal for any coach looking to calm postseason nerves. The Kings, with six back-to-back sets, and the Lakers, who get 12 home games to nine road, both have more difficult schedules.

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The Mavericks are a half-game behind the Pelicans. The Warriors are three games below the Play-In cutoff line. Golden State has the seventh easiest schedule but Andrew Wiggins just took a leave of absence.

Curry’s aging dynasty likely has to drive through five back-to-backs and 14 road games plus two elimination games just to get to the first round. They are five games ahead of the Utah Jazz sitting in 11th, so there is almost no chance the Warriors drop below the 10th seed.

Sacramento is starting to falter, losing their last two games of February. They have 15 home games to just nine on the road but the Pelicans also hold the tiebreaker of the Kings. The Lakers have only three back-to-back sets but just 21 games to make up ground. They are also 9-21 on the road.

New Orleans has six games against teams in the middle of the Western Conference. A March 15 visit from the Clippers is the only matchup in March though. The Suns come to the Smoothie King Center on April Fools. The Orlando Magic (April 3) and San Antonio Spurs (April 5) follow at home.

Four of the next five Pelicans games come against the Suns, Kings, Warriors, and Lakers. There is an April 9 trip to Portland in between.

The regular season finale at home against Lebron’s Lakers could have huge seeding ramifications. It’s also the only home game in the last week. Trips to Phoenix (April 7), Sacramento (April 11), and Golden State (April 12) will test the Pelicans mettle going into the postseason.

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Letting a few of the games against lottery teams slip away will put the Pelicans in a far worse position, playing just to survive and advance. Handle business and Green can get selective with some rotational rest.

Still, this is a tougher-than-expected road for the Pelicans. One or two underperforming teams dropping into the back half of the bracket is normal. Not many would have thought that one-named stars like Luka, KD, Steph, Fox, Zion, and LeBron would all be playing for their NBA Playoffs lives this late into the season. Considering the road ahead, Green’s locker room can earn some on-court respect by grinding out a top-six finish.

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About the Author

Chris Dodson has covered Louisiana high school and college basketball in spurts for over a decade. A basketball lifer from the bayou, his gumbo-stirring form matches his elbow jumper celebrations. Fast enough for varsity hoops, tall enough for a soccer scholarship. He has words and will travel, just not on the court.

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