Stretch run will reveal where Pelicans are headed

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Steven Adams, Zion Williamson
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans have 20 games left in the regular season.

They are in a competitive position to grab one of the play-in opportunities to reach the full post-season.

Extending the season past the May 16 regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Smoothie King Center would be significant in the maturation of a team built around a young core.

But these next 20 games will tell us plenty about where this group is headed regardless of whether the season extends beyond that.

This 72-game season is entering the stretch run and each game will take on more of a playoff intensity, which we got a hint of during the Pelicans’ impressive 101-94 victory over one of the best teams in the NBA – the Philadelphia 76ers – on Friday night in the Smoothie King Center.

Zion Williamson is as unstoppable an offensive player as there is in the NBA right now. Against the 76ers he scored 37 points, grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and added eight assists, tying another career-high.

He used a career-high 28 field-goal attempts to reach that point total and still shot better than 50 percent by making 15.

These next 20 games will show how Williamson responds to the highest stakes his team has played for in his first two seasons.

Brandon Ingram struggled with his shot (5 for 21) in his return from a five-game absence due to a foot injury. If the Pelicans are going to make a strong push to keep playing beyond the regular season, Ingram and Williamson will have to continue to take turns leading the offensive attack and blending together more and more efficiently.

Speaking of leading the offensive attack, these next 20 games could determine what role, if any, starting point guard Lonzo Ball maintains going forward. He didn’t play Friday because of a sore hip, but his absence seems to be short term.

Ball will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s a good, young player who seems headed toward becoming a very good, young player.

But the market will determine what it will cost the Pelicans to keep him next season and if they want to keep him long term, that will require a significant investment that exceeds what his performance has been in his young career but not what his steady improvement suggests his future performance is likely to be.

With Williamson becoming the facilitator more and more, Ball’s role as the primary ball handler is quickly vanishing. In Ball’s absence Friday, Williamson was essentially the point guard the entire time that he was one the court, which was 37 minutes.

Ball’s defensive ability and the dramatic improvement in his outside shooting suggest he can have a substantial role without being the primary ball handler.

How he performs during this playoff push, how well he adjusts to his evolving role and how well he, Williamson and Ingram mesh together as this team’s Big Three will go a long way in determining where this group is headed.

For the next couple of weeks at least the Pelicans will have to play without Josh Hart (thumb surgery) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (ankle). In their absence, rookie Kira Lewis Jr., who returned Friday from a two-game absence due to a calf injury, and recently acquired James Johnson will have opportunities to build on the promise they already have shown.

So we’ll learn about individuals as well as the team during this stretch run.

But the bottom line is that the Pelicans are a weird team.

They are as likely to beat one of the best teams in the NBA as they are to lose to one of the worst teams in the NBA. The victory over the Sixers joined victories against the Jazz, the Clippers, the Suns, the Bucks and the Nuggets as examples of how the Pelicans can prevail against the best the NBA has to offer.

But two losses to the Timberwolves and other losses to the Pistons, the Magic, the Thunder and the Rockets are examples of how the Pelicans can fail against the worst that the NBA has to offer.

Next up is a visit to Cleveland to face the really bad Cavaliers.

If these Pelicans are serious about rising to the level necessary to reach the post-season they will easily handle the Cavs on Sunday night – perhaps not as easily as they did in a 116-82 victory in the Smoothie King Center in the second game after the All-Star Break, but fairly easily nonetheless.

If they are going to remain the inconsistent team that causes consistent head-scratching, they will lose to the Cavs or at least make the game much more difficult than it should be for the superior team.

Stay tuned.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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