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Lakers vs. Pelicans Preview: Postseason Implications

The Lakers and Pelicans face off Sunday in the first of their two final regular-season games against each other this week before a probable play-in tournament matchup.

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New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans are set to square off this Sunday in a matchup down in the bayou that has major postseason implications. Both teams are 31-42, with this game being important for tie-breakers to see who will be the probable host of the latter part of the play-in tournament.

And look, if that entire paragraph doesn’t get you pumped up to watch some Lakers basketball, I understand. It’s hard to get psyched up for a 9 vs. 10 seed play-in matchup, given where we thought this team would go before the season started. It’s even harder to mentally get up for this game when the disappointment that would come with getting eliminated by the Pelicans far outweighs the joy that a win over them in the postseason would bring.

But hey. A miraculous postseason run has to start somewhere. Sure, I think most of us Lakers fans have given up on the idea of that happening, especially when considering the fact that the Phoenix Suns wait for the Lakers in the first-round if they were to win both of their play-in tournament matchups.

But the team is starting to play much better lately, and with five off days for LeBron James in between his last game and Sunday’s, maybe we will get even better performances from him with a little bit of extra health from resting that sore knee of his.

If that is the case, then fans of the team should have a little bit more confidence, and everyone in front of the Lakers in the coming weeks should be scared at that thought.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into the rest of the preview of Sunday’s game.

A tough matchup for the Lakers without AD

The game tomorrow obviously won’t be the last time these two foes play each other before their probable play-in face-off. Five days after tomorrow’s game, they’ll play them again in Los Angeles. But who knows, that game on Friday, April 1 may feature the return of the former Pelican Anthony Davis as recent reports have stated he could return in “the first week of April.”

And yes, I promise that is no preemptive April Fool’s joke.

But for now, as they’ve done since Feb. 16, the team will have to soldier on without their superstar big man. And if there’s any team that reasons to be a tough matchup for the Lakers without AD around, it’s the Pelicans.

That’s for a few reasons, and it all revolves around the Lakers’ defense at the center position. The obvious issue is how they will cover Jonas Valanciunas, who has become a pretty decent big in recent years on the offensive end. He’s especially enjoyed feasting on the Lakers in recent matchups, as he’s averaged 18 points per game in his past five games against the team, dating back to when he was with the Grizzlies. He recently had 19 in the Pelicans’ Feb. 27 rout of the Lakers.

Valanciunas aside, the Lakers’ issues with defense production at the five also show themselves in covering C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram coming around screens on the perimeter. Dwight Howard would seem to be a logical choice to get some heavy minutes to matchup against Valanciunas, especially with an extended break between the Lakers’ recent game and this one that should benefit the 36-year-old center.

However, it seems as if that break wasn’t beneficial for the aging big man. Howard may not even be active for this game as the Lakers’ injury report shows him as questionable with hip soreness.

Luckily, even if Howard was active, the Lakers’ best hopes at stopping the Pelicans’ offense probably lie with Wenyen Gabriel. Gabriel was signed by the team a few days following that late February blowout, and with him on Sunday, the Lakers might have a better chance at slowing down the Pelicans. A defense that deploys more switching than drop-coverage would definitely highlight Gabriel and the rest of the young Lakers’ defensive skills, and it’d cover up any issues that the slow-footed Howard might present.

Let’s just hope that this game on Sunday doesn’t resemble the prior game these two teams played in any way. If it does, it’d really take the wind out of the Lakers' sails that have been added in their past four games that have featured much better play and, most importantly, effort.

But forget moral victories. The Lakers not only need to compete, but they quite literally need to win against the Pelicans, as Russell Westbrook recently stated. A win against the Pelicans on the road without AD would especially be sweet, as it would not only give the Lakers’ a leg up on them for possible home-court advantage in the play-in game, but it’d also provide confidence for the team that they could go into New Orleans and beat them in the play-in if they really needed to. And a loss would all but guarantee that the Lakers would be on the road for both potential play-in rounds, if they make it at all.

So yeah, as all the kids say, beat (N.O.)L.A.

Notes and Updates:

  • At the time of this preview publishing, DraftKings Sportsbook has the Pelicans favored by 4 points in this one with the over/under set at 228. If you’re feeling confident in the Lakers getting the upset, you can get their moneyline at +160 odds.
  • Adding to the lack of excuses for the Lakers in this one is that they will have a massive rest advantage over the Pelicans, who will be on the second night of a back-to-back. They also may have an advantage in Ingram not playing, as he’s out for today’s game against the Spurs.

Sadly, that possible advantage tomorrow is a definite disadvantage today as the Spurs are only two games back of the Lakers and Pelicans, and could get closer to crashing their play-in party by getting a win over their unhealthy opponent. So the Pelicans are resting one of their best players against the Spurs as they try to pass the Lakers and earn a game against New Orleans, and likely saving him to try and knock L.A. back further in a bit of standings-watch strategy. And, of course, the Lakers are all too familiar with opposing players being able to get healthy just in time for games against them, with a return on Sunday for Ingram seeming likely.

  • In that Spurs game, the Pelicans will also be without Kira Lewis Jr. (ACL tear) and Zion Williamson (foot).
  • Other than Howard being questionable, LeBron James will also come into the game questionable with his ongoing knee issue. Given the fact that he missed the most recent game while coming into it as questionable, we can’t be 100% sure he will play. But given the fact that Frank Vogel said he was “hopeful” LeBron would play and that he has been listed as questionable for every game for some time now, some confidence can be had.

Other than that, Anthony Davis and Kendrick Nunn will remain out, while Talen Horton-Tucker seems set to return after two missed games, as he has been upgraded to a probable designation.

  • Around the league, the Eastern Conference standings are shaping up for an extremely exciting finish to the season. Only one game separates the top-four seeds of the conference (Heat, 76ers, Bucks, Celtics) with the same one-game difference separating the fifth, sixth and seventh seeds (Bulls, Cavs, Raptors). Because of that tightness, those standings could end up looking completely different by the time the regular season concludes.

The Lakers and Pelicans tip-off at 4 p.m. PST, with the game being televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.

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