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Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James beat New Orleans Pelicans in defensive slugfest, 90-82

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This recap is for the optimists — Losses are not immune to the occurrence of good things!

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 90-82, failing to score in the final 2:56 of action as LeBron James (26 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) pounded his way to the bucket and free throw line to ice it late in Quicken Loans Arena. The loss ended the Pels’ 4-game winning streak.

Anthony Davis had 20 points and 17 rebounds, but struggled immensely as evidenced by 27 shot attempts and commented about it in post-game. However, he was not alone in getting the ball through the hoop. The Pelicans shot just 36.4 percent for the game and attempted a total of 10 free throws (made 7). Although the team made 11-26 from beyond the arc, they couldn’t find the range from in closer, making close to just 13 of their attempts from two.

The good news in defeat featured 26 assists for the Pels on 32 made shots and 20 points from Buddy Hield, who has shot better of late and forgetting the month of November ever happened. He’s been entrusted to bring the ball up the floor occasionally and even be a late-game defensive sub. Starting for the 16th time this year, Buddy’s initial court time showed him with 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists in the game’s first 10 minutes. Hield’s good showing early must have caught the attention of LeBron, who manhandled Buddy late in the game, including one of his famous chase-down blocks on a layup attempt from Hield. Take it as a compliment, Buddy: at least you got the King’s attention!

By the way, that’s the theme here in a loss against one of the league’s best teams: if you’re looking for good Pels feelings, keep reading!

Love and Defense and Turnovers, oh my!

Also in favor of the Pels was their defense from the three-point line as Cleveland made just 6 of 31 threes on the night as a team. Kevin Love finished 5 of 19 overall (0 of 7 from 3) and was not on the floor late, but later we learned a bout with the stomach flu was likely responsible. Starters DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae and reserve Iman Shumpert, though, were a combined 3 of 17 from the floor and the Cavs starters went 0-for-15 from 3. So, plenty of guys missed shots for the Cavs until LeBron took over.

Defensive numbers are trending well for the Pelicans: they had won 4 in a row before tonight’s loss, (albeit 2 were against bad teams), but against the best opponent offense they’ve played in weeks, they held the Cavs (with Kyrie Irving out due to injury) to a poor night from the floor and gave themselves a chance to win. Since December 23 — when the latest winning streak began — the Pelicans are 1st in the league in Defensive Rating. They also have the fewest committed turnovers and are best at preventing points when they do commit turnovers during that same time. So what happened tonight when Cleveland made their 9 steals? Oftentimes, the Pelicans responded!

On at least three occasions, the Pelicans committed a turnover, but did not allow a score on the immediate possession thereafter (although a number of possessions were further extended by CLE offensive rebounds); this includes a charge AD took on LeBron as Cleveland drove down the floor, and another time when four Pelican players got back on just two Cavs, forcing a turnover as Richard Jefferson went under the basket with no teammate open. On their first 10 turnovers, the Pelicans allowed just 2 points to result from their mistakes. So, that’s something for Gentry, Darren Erman and the players to build on.

Speaking of Richard Jefferson: I wanted to say he had a bad game, but the box score reads 12 points, 12 rebounds and a plus-22 on the night against Dante Cunningham, Terrence Jones and crew. Again, it was an ugly game.

Both teams were missing most of the night, so neither team was ever out of it. You had to figure LeBron would makes plays late, and that’s just what he did, finishing with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.

True Jrue

Half of the team’s 26 assists came from Jrue Holiday. He was 4-of-11 tonight with 11 points, 3 steals and 4 turnovers to go with those 13 assists. To me, the best play involving Jrue first involved a mistake of his: with Love iso’d in the post, Jrue fell asleep on his defensive assignment on Liggins at the top of the key, Love delivered a pass to a cutting Liggins only to have AD block the layup attempt and get the Pels running, resulting in a Solomon Hill triple on a Holiday assist. That put the Pels up 3 at the time (during the 2nd quarter) and was a highlight play thanks to Davis (who had 3 blocks).

Who Cleveland LeBron attacked

It seemed that Cleveland made very clear efforts to get certain players (LeBron and Love) to certain spots against certain Pelicans defenders. Solomon Hill took on plenty of iso assignments against both players, especially early; later, LeBron would do what he could to get E’Twuan Moore on him via the pick-and-roll, and finally as described above, LeBron found Buddy facing him up and pounced. Instead of the competition getting stronger as the game wore on, LeBron worked his way into more favorable matchups as each quarter passed; the guy is a supercomputer... or he realized with the Pelicans switching everything, he could eventually land the easier prey.

The Pelicans should remain pleased despite the Kyrie Irving-less loss if they can pick up a win against the Atlanta Hawks this coming Thursday at home before a commencing a 5-game Eastern Conference road trip.

Geaux Pelicans!