If you told me before the game that Eric Gordon would score 31 points, Tyreke Evans would flirt with his second triple-double, and Luke Babbitt would be unstoppable I would assume the Pelicans pulled out a victory tonight. Gordon was absolutely on fire tonight, canning seven of his eight three point attempts. Evans finished with 18 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds. Luke Babbitt poured in 15 points and 6 rebounds off the bench.
The Pelicans lost as their comeback attempt came up short, 100-96.
The first 24 minutes were relatively beautiful for the Pelicans, considering the significant absences of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Ryan Anderson. Tyreke Evans scored or assisted on the first 17 Pelican points and it was obvious early on the team would go as far as he could carry them. Problems were brewing beneath the basket, however. Alexis Ajinca got in early foul trouble and the Utah Jazz simply pummeled the Pelicans on the glass. Asik would challenge a shot, the Jazz would miss, the rebound would carom off, and another Utah player would scoop it up and score. A similar story would play out in the fourth quarter on a critical possession.
Toney Douglas moved into the lineup ahead of Jimmer Fredette and immediately demonstrated why, defensive pressure at the point of attack. Unfortunately, Douglas also had ample room to show why he was available on a 10-day contract at all, inability to initiate the offense. The box score says Douglas was a +/- 0 in his 25 minutes but I can't help but wonder if the Pelicans could have done better at reserve point guard tonight.
This was also one of Omer Asik's best games as a Pelican. In the first half alone the Jazz shot an awful 6-22 within the restricted area. Asik's block total (5) does not tell half of the story of his defensive impact tonight. Later, when NBA Stats has the rim protection numbers it will bear out, but this game is not close without Asik patrolling the paint.
The wheels came off with 6:33 remaining in the third quarter. The Pelicans were up 64-50 and had scored on six of their first eight possessions, to include an epic five offensive rebound effort to begin the half spanning 1:12 of game time. In three minutes the Pelicans went scoreless and committed five turnovers. One of those, a dubious moving screen call on Asik, negated a Tyreke Evans three.
Utah continued to score and began knocking down open 3-point shots which had eluded them in the first 24 minutes. In the final two minutes of the third quarter alone they knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers, culminating with a Gordon Hayward buzzer beater. Just like that a 14 point lead turned into a four point deficit.
Luke Babbitt and Eric Gordon combined to make it a game in the fourth quarter. A Utah lead that once stretched to nine was erased as Gordon and Babbitt combined to score 23 points in the final frame alone. After the Pelicans regained the lead 87-86 Utah answered right back with a five point run forcing a Monty Williams timeout.
Eric Gordon throughout the night had a problem with the Jazz trap of the side pick and roll and once again he left his feet, leading to another turnover. Despite an ugly night handling pressure (Evans had 5 turnovers, Gordon 6) two Asik free throws and a Gordon layup quickly cut the lead to just one at 92-91. The Pelicans got the stop they needed but a Tyreke Evans layup attempt went wide in the ensuing fast break.
Again the Jazz got into the lane. Again Omer Asik arrived on time and forced a miss by Gordon Hayward executing flawless verticality. And again, the remaining Pelican defenders in the area, Alexis Ajinca and Dante Cunningham, failed to gain control of a critical rebound. Hayward sunk the put back attempt to stretch the lead back to three.
Coming out of the timeout Monty did what I had been begging him to do, initiate the offense with the three man weave up top to get some space and room to operate. However, Eric Gordon dribbled too far right into the sideline, elevated, and found no options to pass the ball. With Anthony Davis or Ryan Anderson the Pelicans could make the Jazz pay repeatedly for pressuring ball screens with pick and pops. When those shooting threats are replaced by Asik or Ajinca defenses are much more willing to sell out on pressure to create turnovers. The repeated failures of the Pelican guards clearly demonstrate what New Orleans was missing tonight.
From there it was a matter of winning the free throw game and the Jazz knocked down theirs. A clever triple screen for Eric Gordon resulted in another three and Tyreke's 10th assist of the night, but it was too little, too late.
I'll have more here momentarily. A couple things jumped out to me tonight. The Pelicans were absolutely on fire behind the arc and I think that masked the talent deficit they faced throughout the contest. New Orleans on the night shot 13-22 behind the arc and that simply is ridiculous. If the Pels had pulled that out tonight it would have been stealing a game they didn't deserve.
The inability to punish the Jazz for being aggressive in the pick and roll ultimately sunk the Pelicans as the turnovers piled up. New Orleans did not play differently or run different sets half to half. They ran the same stuff they have all season and the Jazz defended very well in the second half.
In a game the Pelicans lose by just four I can't help but remember a missed goal tend on an Eric Gordon run out and the previously mentioned overturned Tyreke Evans three on a "moving screen" call. Moving screens are like holding in football. They could call it every trip down the floor if they wanted to; tonight they called it just once.
The Pelicans started their 12th different starting lineup in 52 games tonight.