Kenrich Williams (left) defends against Dallas guard Luka Doncic

Pelicans gear up for home opener against Mavericks’ fast-starting duo

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

On Friday night, New Orleans will play a second straight game on national television to open its 2019-20 regular season, hosting a potentially key Southwest Division foe, in front of a capacity crowd. In other words, Mavericks-Pelicans will have many of the characteristics of a compelling early-season matchup – except for one. With Zion Williamson (knee) sidelined 6-8 weeks by injury, the No. 1 overall draft pick will not be in uniform, but the Pelicans still anticipate a vibrant atmosphere in the Smoothie King Center.

“I understand the Zion situation, with him not being able to run out there and start the first game,” fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “But there is an energy in the air that I have not seen since I’ve been here. I think we’ll have a great crowd and they’ll be very supportive. We have to give them a reason to come back.”

“I’m excited,” point guard Lonzo Ball said. “First home game. Hopefully a lot of people come out and we put on a good show for them.”

For Ball to emerge with a win in a regular season home opener for the first time in his NBA career, the Pelicans will need to slow down a Dallas team coming off a 108-100 victory vs. Washington on Wednesday. Shooting guard Luka Doncic poured in 34 points, tied for the fourth-most points of any individual during the first two days of the NBA season (coincidentally, he’s deadlocked with Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who tallied 34 apiece Tuesday vs. the Pelicans). In his return from a lengthy injury absence, Mavericks big Kristaps Porzingis netted 23 points against the Wizards, draining three three-pointers, while Doncic connected four times from deep.

“They do have great shooting,” Gentry said of the Mavs. “They’ve got one of the truly great young players in the league (in Doncic), who is very capable of making shots and is very good at creating shots for other people. We’ve just got to be solid defensively. It doesn’t come down to one individual; we’ve got to be great from a team defensive standpoint.”

Playing without Porzingis last season, Doncic had to carry a significant offensive load for Dallas and produced mixed head-to-head results vs. New Orleans, including a 2/8 shooting night, but also separate 34- and 29-point games. Jrue Holiday often guarded Doncic, who averaged 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists against the Pelicans, but only shot 43 percent from the field and 35 percent on treys. Brandon Ingram, who has shifted over to power forward in Williamson’s absence, indicated Thursday that he may draw the Porzingis assignment, or at least during some possessions.

“It’s not been a matchup of mine going into games, but it’s a good challenge for me,” Ingram said of defending the 7-foot-3 native of Latvia. “He’s a skilled big who can shoot the ball and put it on the deck.”

New Orleans went just 19-22 at home last season, a record the Pelicans need to drastically improve to have a chance to reach the postseason in the West (NBA.com’s power rankings place NOLA ninth in the conference, just ahead of No. 10 Dallas). On paper, it won’t be easy to get off to a fast start this fall in the Smoothie King Center – Dallas is the only club among the Pelicans’ first eight guests that did make the playoffs last season.

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