The Pelicans ride a two game winning streak into Cleveland on Monday night. Since the arrival of Anthony Davis, New Orleans is 4-1 against the Cavaliers including two wins at the Q. This may not be news, but this Cleveland team is a little different than last year's version.
ESPN projected that Cleveland would be the most improved team in the league this season, largely on the back of off season acquisitions LeBron James and Kevin Love. Much like the beginnings James experienced with the Miami Heat in 2010 (starting out 9-8), it has not been all roses yet for the Cavaliers. This was expected. Remember those Heat still made the NBA Finals before succumbing to the Mavericks in six games. An 82 game schedule is a marathon, not a sprint.
It is advantageous of the schedule for the Pelicans to face the Cavs in Cleveland early this season. For the first home game since opening night, the electricity will be in the air as LeBron James, the current undisputed best basketball player on the planet, faces Anthony Davis, anointed by many to be his successor. The Cavs have no shortage of star power but still lack cohesion built from familiarity. That will come, but it is not evident yet. Perfect timing for the Pelicans to snatch a victory.
Pelicans on Defense
It is imperative that the Pelicans bring their defensive game plan with them from San Antonio. Against the Spurs, Monty Williams had both Omer Asik and Anthony Davis dropping back on the myriad of ball screens set for Tony Parker. Parker got his, including 14 points in the second quarter on scorching hot 4-4 shooting from mid range, but the rest of the Spurs machine remained in neutral for much of the contest.
Cleveland is a different machine, but similar tactics will gum up its gears. The Cavs are averaging 21.5 assists in wins and just 15.3 in losses. They are last in both secondary assists, putting up a paltry 2.3 a game, and assist opportunities. The ball does not move, despite having two excellent basketball minds in James and Love.
If the Pelicans want to win on Monday, they need a little help as a hot night jump shooting from LeBron will spell their doom. Plenty of NBA teams (including most recent opponent San Antonio and coaching demigod Gregg Popovich) take that bet. Tyreke Evans is not going to stop LeBron James. The best New Orleans, and indeed every NBA team, can hope for is to make LeBron beat them with his jump shooting.
Sag on those ball screens to keep Omer Asik's hulking frame between James and the basket. Stick to shooters and make James and Irving win this game with one-on-one highlights. Rebounding the ball is going to be a team wide effort; Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson are all dangerous on the offensive glass. The more Cleveland wants to put the ball in Irving's hands the better; Jrue Holiday will be salivating at this match up.
Pelicans on Offense
Attack the basket -- no one available for Cleveland can defend it. Holiday and Evans scored 34 points on 26 shots to go with 15 assists and 13 rebounds last November. Nothing Cleveland did this off season appreciably improved their ability to defend point guards or the rim. Cavalier opponents are shooting 63.3% in the restricted area, a big reason why they are posting a 54.7% eFG% going against Cleveland's defense.
Kyrie Irving smashing into Omer Asik screens should be a regular occurrence. Hand-offs leading to James running into those same massive Turkish screens would be an excellent development. The more energy those stars expend on defense running into Asik's body the better.
Get Anthony Davis lots and lots of touches on offense. Cleveland has a host of poor options who will attempt to defend the New Orleans Alien. AD should be on track for a monster game, if the Pelicans choose to feed him appropriately. Cross screens for post ups, clear outs with Davis in the pinch post, pick and pop, you name it, the Pelicans should try it to get AD the rock. Forcing Kevin Love to defend away from the basket will have a secondary effect of weakening the Cavs on the defensive glass.
Key Match Up
Jrue Holiday versus Kyrie Irving. In their one game last season, Irving scored 22 points - on 22 shots with just two assists and four turnovers. Holiday won the efficiency battle, scoring 15 on 10 shots with 11 assists and three turnovers. Everyone will mistakenly focus on LeBron James and if Tyreke Evans can guard him one-on-one. (Hint, he can't. No one can.) Train your eyes on the point guard battle.
Defensively, Holiday is going to need to fight through screens well enough to keep the "ICE" pick and roll defense afloat. Irving is a good shooter so Holiday will need to trail well enough to create indecision and challenge shots without fouling. Asik's constant presence as a last line of defense should help. Similarly with the Spurs game, Monty needs to choose Irving beating the Pelicans with mid range jumpers over letting the ball get moving side to side in the chaos of rotations.
When New Orleans has the ball, Holiday must continue to be aggressive. It is unfortunate he does not look to attack the basket as much as I would like, but has done well selecting his spots to assert himself. With defenders like Irving, Jrue should turn it up a notch and permits some selfishness. Holiday is capable of looking for his own shot and continuing to distribute the ball effectively; look no further than his 31 points, 13 assist, 7 rebound outburst against Portland last winter as evidence. A similar effort may be necessary to pull out a win in front of the Cleveland faithful.
Look for our Game Thread to post at 5:00 pm, one hour prior to the 6:00 pm tip off. Please note the game is in the Eastern Timezone so it does begin an hour earlier than most Pelican games. Let's hear what you will be watching for in the comments.