The Los Angeles Lakers will get a taste of playoff basketball on Sunday, taking on the New Orleans Pelicans away from home.
Both teams need a win to make a key step toward securing a Play-In Tournament spot. With the Lakers sitting in ninth and the Pelicans a 0.5 game behind in 10th, they currently occupy the last two Play-In places — but the San Antonio Spurs are just 1.5 games away from L.A., waiting to capitalize on either’s side slump.
Adding to the stakes, the Pelicans could secure a tiebreaker over the Lakers with a victory by winning the season series. That would make for a major coup for New Orleans, as the ninth-placed team in the final standings will enjoy a home-court advantage over the 10th team in the first phase of the Play-In Tournament.
Dwight Howard made the injury report ahead of the game, listed as questionable to play due to hip soreness. LeBron James and Talen Horton-Tucker are available after both missed the loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
On the Pelicans side, former Laker Brandon Ingram could make his comeback after spending the last 10 games on the sideline with a hamstring injury. However, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas are both questionable to appear, and Larry Nance Jr. is likely to sit out, as he played just last night in a loss to the Spurs, having recently returned from a lengthy break.
McCollum and Valanciunas’ absence would severely hurt the Pelicans against the Lakers. The former Portland Trail Blazer has been in exceptional form since moving to Louisiana, averaging 26.4 points (a would-be career-high), 6.5 assists, and 1.2 steals on 50.4% from the field and 38.3% from downtown.
Meanwhile, Valanciunas has been one of the NBA’s best centers this season — and fared even better over the last three weeks. The Lithuanian double-double machine has scored 30 points or more in just 13 games during his career, two of which took place earlier this month.
Over the last five games, Valanciunas averaged 20 points and 14.4 rebounds.
The Pelicans crushed the Lakers on the glass last time around, putting even more stress on L.A.’s backcourt to box out and help collect rebounds on Sunday.
Similarly, the Purple and Gold need to keep up the good work at protecting the ball and moving it around smoothly in the half-court, as they are facing a side that leads the NBA in steals per game (9.0) since McCollum’s arrival and thrives at dealing damage in transition.
Efficient outside shooting could prove particularly valuable for the Lakers, as the Pelicans keep giving up plenty of shots from deep. L.A. has improved its aim from beyond the arc over the past two weeks — but it’s time for the Purple and Gold to bring their A-game onto the court in a potentially season-defining clash in New Orleans.
Lakers (31-42) vs. Pelicans (31-43)
4:00 p.m. PT, March 26, 2022
Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, Louisiana
TV: Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Malik Monk
SF: Austin Reaves
PF: LeBron James
C: Wenyen Gabriel
Key Reserves: Carmelo Anthony, Stanley Johnson, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wayne Ellington, D.J. Augustin
Projected Pelicans Starting Lineup:
PG: Devonte’ Graham
SG: Brandon Ingram
SF: Herb Jones
PF: Jaxson Hayes
C: Willy Hernangomez
Key Reserves: Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall, Tony Snell