Josh Hart drives to the basket vs. Brooklyn

Pelicans shootaround update: Key midseason road trip begins in Brooklyn

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Early in the 2021-22 season, a road trip against three straight playoff contenders would’ve justifiably been viewed as an exceptionally formidable challenge for New Orleans. After all, the Pelicans started the campaign by going just 1-9 in away games, losing seven times by a double-digit margin. Since a Devonte’ Graham game-winning three-pointer in Utah, however, the team’s travels have produced better outcomes, with New Orleans having gone 5-6, including subsequent victories at the Clippers, Dallas, Oklahoma City (Graham struck again, from 61 feet) and Orlando.

Based on that improvement, as well as what they’ve accomplished in the Smoothie King Center lately, the Pelicans should be a more confident road team as they prepare to face Brooklyn (tonight at 6:30, Bally Sports, 100.3 FM), Boston and New York over the next six days.

The Nets represent one of the Eastern Conference’s true championship contenders, but are sorting through the home/road availability of Kyrie Irving, who’s ineligible to play Saturday due to New York City’s vaccine mandate. On Thursday at home, the Nets rested Kevin Durant, after Brooklyn’s incomparable itinerary had them playing a game Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center, then in Portland for a Monday back-to-back, then visit Chicago on Wednesday, then host the Thunder on Thursday. Reports indicate that Durant and James Harden will both be in uniform Saturday vs. New Orleans.

The other two opponents on this Pelicans road trip, Boston (21-22) and New York (21-21), brought similar, relatively high expectations into 2021-22, but for now are vying for a play-in tournament spot, making every game vital. The Knicks are 10th in the East, a half-game ahead of the Celtics.

Depending on the results of this excursion to the frigid Northeast, New Orleans could see its position change up or down within the West play-in tournament race. The Pelicans have erased nearly all of what was a multi-game deficit by going 13-10 overall since a 3-16 start, pulling within a half-game of No. 10 Sacramento (18-27) and No. 11 Portland (16-25).

Other notes Saturday:

Brooklyn key reserve LaMarcus Aldridge (foot) is listed as out for Saturday’s game. Nic Claxton (hamstring) is questionable. Sharpshooting guard/forward Joe Harris (ankle) has not played since Nov. 14, two days after the Nets last faced the Pelicans.

BROOKLYN SCOUTING REPORT

Offensive efficiency rank: 8 (111.2)

Defensive efficiency rank: 14 (108.8)

Net rating: 10 (2.4)

Pace: 9 (99.81)

Streak: Lost 1

Go-to guy: Durant is the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 29.7 points, but in the Nov. 12 matchup between Brooklyn and New Orleans, Harden piled up 39 points on 11/18 shooting from the field and 11/15 foul shooting (Durant added 29 points). That remains Harden’s season high in scoring (he also had 39 on Dec. 27 at the Clippers). In hindsight, the 15 free throws Harden attempted look like a turning point for him in that category, because he’s taken double-digit foul shots six times since then. In the dozen games before his visit to the Smoothie King Center, Harden only had one game of 10-plus charity tosses in his 12 appearances.

On the rise: After his team’s celebrated and decorated “Big Three,” LSU product Cam Thomas has been Brooklyn’s fourth-leading scorer in January, averaging 12.8 points per game. Shooting 48 percent from the field this month, Thomas is one of several young Nets getting a much greater opportunity to contribute, due to injuries and player-availability issues. Taken two slots after Thomas in the 2021 draft at No. 29 overall, center Day’Ron Sharpe turned in consecutive games this week of 14 and 20 points vs. Portland and Chicago, respectively.

PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS

NEW ORLEANS (16-26, 12TH IN WEST)

Thursday win vs. LA Clippers

Devonte’ Graham, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas

Notes: This group is 10-5, going 7-3 at home and 3-2 on the road. Among the handful of teams currently vying for the final West play-in spot, New Orleans has the most effective group record-wise. Sacramento’s most common alignment is 5-5; the others are Portland (9-8, featuring now-sidelined Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum), San Antonio (7-7) and Oklahoma City (5-9). … New Orleans is 15-18 this season when Ingram plays (including a loss at OKC when an in-game injury limited Ingram to just nine minutes).

BROOKLYN (26-15, 3RD IN EAST)

Thursday loss vs. Oklahoma City

Bruce Brown, James Harden, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kessler Edwards, Day’Ron Sharpe

Notes: This group is 0-1 and was the 20th different starting five the Nets have already used this season. It was only rookie Sharpe’s second start of his NBA career. Another rookie, Edwards was making his third pro start. By comparison, New Orleans has used 11 starting lineups. … Sixteen different Nets have started at least once, compared to nine Pelicans. … Brooklyn was passed in the standings by Miami on Friday after the Heat’s comeback over Atlanta. Only two games separate the top four teams in the East, with defending NBA champion Milwaukee in fourth.

FANDUEL KEYS TO THE GAME

STAY HOT

New Orleans is arguably coming off its best two-game offensive stretch of the season, a big factor in home wins over Minnesota and the Clippers. The Pelicans averaged 120.5 points and 15.0 three-pointers against the Timberwolves and Clips, the type of production they might need to prevail at Brooklyn. The Nets have scored 110-plus points 22 times this season and are 21-1 in those games.

‘BIG TWO’ IN BARCLAYS

For a second time this season, Irving will not suit up against the Pelicans on Saturday, but Brooklyn’s other two All-Star weapons, Durant and Harden, were a handful and them some Nov. 12 for NOLA’s defense. The Pelicans have to try to make that duo less efficient than they were two months ago, when they combined to shoot 22/35 from the field and a scorching 9/13 on threes in the Big Easy.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

New Orleans’ bench play vs. Brooklyn’s subs will be interesting to follow Saturday, even if it’s often unclear from game to game exactly which players will comprise the Nets’ second unit. For the Pelicans, Jaxson Hayes was a big boost during this week’s 2-0 homestand, scoring 13 points in both games, while Jose Alvarado provided a spark with hustle plays and grabbed a career-high eight rebounds vs. the Clippers.

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