The Clippers have regained some momentum after a rocky stretch to start the new year, right in time to head out on six-game road trip. The first stop is in New Orleans, where the young Pelicans are starting to figure some things out.
The two teams have yet to play each other at full strength — Kawhi Leonard and Brandon Ingram missed the first game in New Orleans, and Landry Shamet and Derrick Favors have each missed both. Paul George (and potentially Moe Harkless) will not play today, and the Pelicans will be without Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick. Notably absent as well is Zion Williamson, who has yet to make his NBA debut.
Despite all of the injuries, New Orleans is still a team on the rise, having won seven of the last ten games to pull within four games of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Pelicans beat the Clippers back in November in George's first game of the year on the strength of a dominant Holiday performance. Without Holiday, New Orleans will lean on Ingram to produce offensively.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, Ingram has been up to the challenge. He scored a career-high 49 points in an overtime win over the Utah Jazz Thursday on 15-of-25 shooting while getting to the free-throw line 20 times.
Ingram is averaging 25.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 48.0% from the field, 40.6% from 3-point range, and 86.0% on free throws. His former teammate Lou Williams (the two both played for the Lakers during the first half of the 2016-17 season before Williams was traded to Houston) was happy to see the growth Ingram has shown in his fourth year.
Containing Ingram will be a priority for the Clippers. If Harkless is unavailable, Leonard may have to be the initial defender on Ingram because no one else on the L.A. roster has the length and quickness to contain the New Orleans forward.
Helping to run the show as a secondary creator for the Pelicans is Lonzo Ball. Ball memorably had his NBA debut crushed by Patrick Beverley, as Mr. 94 Feet hounded him into a disastrous opening night performance two years ago. Ball's confidence has certainly improved since then, but that matchup against Beverley has never really worked in his favor.
One matchup that New Orleans may have the edge in is at center, where Favors has stabilized the team's defense since his return to the lineup and been a solid pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop partner for the talented perimeter players. The Pelicans were 28th in defense (114.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) through the first 25 games, of which Favors only played nine due to personal matters. Since then, their defensive rating is 109.8, good for 17th in league and worthy of containing a powerful offense like the Clippers.
The Clippers are 10-9 on the road this season, as both their offense and defense get a little bit worse away from Staples Center. Even if L.A. gets off to a hot start like they have in the past two games, New Orleans has been able to come back from big deficits on their home court. Don't let their record detract from the fact that the Pelicans play hard, and they're on a bit of a hot streak.
"We gotta keep being us, we gotta carry to the road what we've done the last couple games, and the way we've played," Doc Rivers said. "We have to play at the pace that we're playing at every night. It has to become what we do. We haven't established that yet and so that's what we're trying to do."
This should also be a fun matchup thanks to all of the personal connections between the two teams. In addition to Williams, Ivica Zubac was also teammates with Ingram, as well as Ball and Josh Hart. Shamet had some tutelage under Redick last season when the two played together in Philadelphia. Redick quipped on his podcast that Shamet used to follow him around and do whatever Redick did, and their bond clearly remains strong today.