The Pelicans had been struggling previously, with five losses in fifteen days where the Pelicans relinquished leads of ten points or more. In fact, the Pelicans had lost eight of twelve, Anthony Davis was expressing his “win now” mandate, and Bill Simmons was denying the need for The Brow in Boston.
For the first time in a month, however, the Pelicans held two opponents under 100 points, established defense, rhythm and resembled a team who belongs in the Western Conference playoffs.
But was it a mirage?
The Magic and Heat were both depleted. The Magic was forced to start D.J. Augustin and Marreese Speights with logged absences in Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross. The Heat were forced to play a bench consisting of Wayne Ellington, Jordan Mickey, and Udonis Haslem. Losing either game would have proven disastrous for a fan base in desperate need of a win streak.
And as we predicted this offseason on a podcast with Trevor and Travis in our schedule breakdown, the first substantial win streak of the season seemed likely towards the end of December. Here’s ten reasons why the Pelicans first substantial win streak of the season begins now.
The Pelicans next three opponents have a combined record of 39-61
The Knicks have lost three of four, the Nets and Mavericks, five of six. None of the teams listed are expected to make a push towards the playoffs down the stretch. New York currently sits in the eighth position, but point guards Jarrett Jack and Frank Ntilikina were badly exposed against the 76ers on Christmas Day.
The next three games are at home
The Pelicans are but 8-7 at home this season, but you can thank a very arduous schedule for that unremarkable record. While the Pels have dropped Smoothie King matchups to bottom dwellers in the Kings and Magic, they have to be expected to pick up play in front of the home crowd in the next two weeks.
The defense is improving
The Pelicans held the Magic and Heat to 97 and 94 points respectively. While the rosters were depleted, you couldn’t help but notice the improvement in energy and focus, especially from Demarcus Cousins. The Pelicans held the Heat and Magic to 42% from the floor, including 31% and 20% from three.
The Magic and Heat had opportunities, but couldn’t make the shots. Blame it on the crippled depth chart if you wish, but nothing builds confidence like success.
The Pelicans are taking care of the basketball
Live ball turnovers were something Jamelle McMillan preached in depth on our podcast last week, and the Pelicans finally found a way to limit them in the past two matchups, turning it over 15 and 14 times. There seems to be a correlation emerging on the season between turnovers and wins.
After tonight, the Pels are 11-4 when they turn the ball over less than 16 times. They had 14 against the Heat.— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) December 24, 2017
If New Orleans can continue to take care of the basketball and cut down on opponent fastbreak buckets, where they sit #28th, that should increase the ratio of wins.
Stress to win is real
After a troubling start, the Thunder are rolling at 11-3 in December. The Trail Blazers have righted the ship after a five-game losing streak, the Nuggets are getting healthier, and the Timberwolves are pulling away as the fourth seed favorite.
An injury to Rudy Gobert (sprained PCL) has offered the Pels some distance in a crowded Western Conference, but he won’t be out forever, and the time to sprint out ahead is now.
DeMarcus Cousins appearing inside of the arc more often
This has been a trend in the last several outings and it helps the Pelicans in several areas. For one, having one of your best rebounders near the rim opens up more second chance opportunities. Also, when Cousins is the high man in the high and low game with Davis, Boogie often settles for perimeter jumpers that the defense gifts to him.
Sure, Boogie has good range, but the defense would much rather have him taking jumpshots than abusing them in the post — they can guard him with a single player while not leaving another shooter or cutter open. Additionally, Cousins has a high dribble on drives to the basket, so playing inside — giving him less ground to cover when driving — should theoretically reduce the amount of turnovers.
When Davis is the high man, he doesn't settle for the perimeter shot unless left wide open. He will find openings on the floor and make hard off-ball cuts to get to the rim where Boogie or another ball-handler can find him.
Finally, against Miami and Orlando, we also saw Cousins getting the calls he deserves every night at the rim. This trend should continue and could result in the Pelicans entering the penalty early and for the opponent to have to utilize their bench bigs or go smaller causing even greater mismatches down low.
We've heard all of you taunting the Atlanta Falcons fans throughout the weekend about their lack of home support — luckily, if tradition holds true, the people of New Orleans have taken advantage of one of the cheapest seats in the league and bought holiday gift packages for friends and family. Stocking the arena with cheer should result in a 5-game streak that will hopefully energize the city to keep the arena full for the remainder of the season.
Pressuring without getting taught
The Pelicans start three guards and two centers, but their guards have exceptional wingspan for their height. E'Twaun Moore — our starting small forward is 6'-4" tall, but has a 6'-9" wingspan. Jrue Holiday is 6'-4" tall with a 6'-7" wingspan. Rajon Rondo is Mr. Elastic with a 7' wingspan on just a 6'-1" body. That’s perfect considering Head Coach Alvin Gentry wants his team to put more pressure directly on the ball.
Alvin Gentry credited the improved defense on the recent two-game trip through Florida, where the Pelicans held Magic and Heat to under 100 points, to "the guards being into the ball and the bigs of protecting the guards."— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) December 27, 2017
Filthy Three-Point Shooting
We all love the three ball, and the Pelicans have been fantastic from deep since the first ten games of the season, shooting a league-best 41.2 3PT%! Darius Miller, E'Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, Ian Clark, Jameer Nelson, Dante Cunningham — even DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — have been absolute snipers in November/December.
The New Orleans Pelicans have played just three times in the last eleven days so that bodes well regardless of perhaps what transpires in coming days.
The Nets are a scrappy team that is very well coached. They are taking opponents down to the wire despite having inferior talent on paper. I believe this game will be nip-and-tuck, but the Pelicans will pull it out in the fourth as they have the right kind of mismatches and the Nets will be on the 2nd night of a back-to-back.
The Mavericks and Knicks games are back-to-backs for the Pelicans. Therefore, it may be important for the Pels to put the Mavs away early so their starters can be rested for a Knicks team that also fields two hard working, high energy centers. It'll be a dogfight down low so getting Davis and Cousins a breather the night before could be crucial, but maybe not a requirement.