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Pelicans hold off Mavericks 121-118 as Big 3 refused to lose and keep playoff hope alive

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New Orleans lives to die another day thanks to DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Think 4.

That’s the Pelicans’ tragic number entering today. Any combination of Portland wins and Pelicans losses lowers that number. Once that number drops to zero, the Pelicans are officially eliminated from contention. Until then, they aren’t. To say the Pelicans are hanging by the skin of their teeth would be an understatement. Mathematical elimination could happen any time now.

But for one more day, at least, the Pelicans lived to fight another day, beating the Dallas Mavericks 121-118 and stalling their tragic number at four.

Wednesday’s game, versus the team ahead of them in the standings, the Dallas Mavericks, was about as a “game of runs” as it got. The Pelicans were the team that always had control, but the Mavs always found a way, somehow, to get themselves back into the game. The lead tracker makes this perfectly clear:

The game started off well for the Pelicans as they built an early 8-point lead on the backs of their “Big 3”, who scored 13 of their first 14 points. But the veteran Mavs were able to cut and take the lead behind Dorian Finney-Smith’s corner three. This wouldn’t last long as New Orleans quickly regained the lead on the very next possession behind Anthony Davis’ outback.

The Pelicans then slowly expanded the lead, showing the execution — on offense and on defense — that has allowed them to win six of their last nine and be quite competitive in the other three losses. Cousins no longer looks lost out there. He’s integrated in Gentry’s offense, filled with dribble pitches, handoffs and ball screens. He still gets his post-ups but they feel more within the flow of the offense, similar to the occasional AD postups rather than the “my turn, your turn” way it was executed in the early days of the Boogie era Pelicans.

Lo and behold, the Pelicans took a 12-point lead entering the second half thanks to Boogie’s on-the-logo halfcourt, buzzer beater.

However, the rest of the game out of halftime showed why the Pelicans still have a long way to go. In their prior last 20 halves of basketball or so, New Orleans has shown incredible resilience and execution, something we had yet to see consistently under Gentry. The team ranked 7th on offense (110.1), 8th on defense (102.8) and 5th in net rating (+7.3) over that earlier talked about 9-game stretch. Heck, they’ve even flashed a killer instinct we’re not accustomed to. So, color me surprised when they came out of the 2nd half flat against the Mavericks.

For instance, Harrison Barnes made basket to start the third quarter was solidly defended, but the steal by Nerlens Noel that led to an And-1 was inexcusable. Tim Frazier’s pass was lackadaisical, the foul was stupid and then the offensive set after that sequence was not the best. That allowed Dallas to cut a 12-point lead to 5 in about a minute, pushing Gentry to throw his gum on the ground in frustration (seriously, he did).

From that point on, Dallas felt empowered. Sure, the Pelicans maintained a lead and they eventually built another 12-point edge on the back of Davis’ brilliance, who scored 10 straight points (this was with Cousins’ help, who helped put Dallas in the bonus so early in the quarter). But, there’s a reason why good teams need that killer instinct, that “I’m going to put my foot on your neck, strangle you even as you struggle” mentality because the longer you keep a team in the game, the higher the odds of a comeback. All it takes is one good sequence: which Dallas eventually got, when Yogi Ferrell drained back-to-back, well-defended triples (both in transition, both contested well) to cut the lead to 4 (Matthews hit a floater off a Barnes drive).

At that point, Dallas knew they had the Pels’ number.

New Orleans was still able to pull this one out, thanks to their superior talent and improved chemistry, but this win left a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t just me though as DeMarcus Cousins in his postgame interview with Jen Hale stated he didn’t love the win either.

I didn’t feel like they were “terrible” down the stretch. The only defensive breakdown you could point to was the Nowitzki baseline J (that cut the lead to 3). But they did have terrible stretches of defense in this game, one that allowed Dallas to regain their composure and get some confidence. That was what left a bad taste.

The Pelicans showed their strength tonight: The Big 3 of AD, Boogie and Jrue Holiday was responsible for 97 of the 121 points they scored. The trio combined to score 77 points and dish out 15 assists, of which 20 points were not to any of them). Five Pelicans scored in double digits — somewhat of a rarity before, but now becoming a regular occurrence.

The team still needs to show more of their strengths (Big 3 intertwined play, bench contributions, defense) and less of their weaknesses (lack of killer instinct, inconsistent shooting). A few notes:

  • I am a big fan of Gentry’s substitution patterns and the fact that he’s settled into a solid 8-man rotation. It’s too late in the season for this to matter, but it is a welcome development.
  • Despite Frazier’s recent stretch of good numbers (47 assists on just 5 turnovers over his last 8 games), I don’t think he’s played well. His shooting has cratered, he still can’t consistently handle the ball with his left hand and he’s a liability in the team’s switch heavy scheme.
  • One thing that has emerged from Frazier starting is the play of Holiday. Since Frazier’s move to the point, Jrue’s been on a tear: 16.7 points (55.9 TS%) & 6.8 assists (1.2 turnovers). That reinforces my belief that Jrue’s more suited as a secondary ballhandler (rather than as a primary ballhandler). Sure, Jrue still gets to play a lot without Tim (20 minutes on average), but usually that’s after Jrue gets in a groove. Jrue’s one of the most inconsistent and “snowbally” NBA players I’ve watched this season. If he gets off to a good start, he can snowball that into a game-changing contest (as he’s had over the past few games). If he doesn’t, he quickly falls into a rut. If the Pels are hellbent on keeping Jrue (and maybe they are, once you consider that AD adores Jrue and wants the organization to keep him), then a priority for the offseason is to get a primary ballhandler beside Jrue. That could be another point guard (permanently keeping Jrue as a wing) or a ballhandling wing (moving Jrue back to “point”) in the mold of Andre Iguodala (Philly days) or Tyreke Evans.
  • I wasn’t a big fan of the “offense/defense” substitution of Dante Cunningham for Cousins. I think, in a vacuum, it was a good move and most coaches would have done the same. But here’s my thing: the road to a championship in the West will go through the Warriors (at least for the next 3 to 4 years) which means it would probably be in the Pelicans’ best interest to make the Boogie-Brow tandem work defensively, even against small-ball lineups. Today’s game was a good opportunity (when the Mavs went with Noel as the only big on the floor). Alas, they blew it. I really hope Gentry (or whoever coaches this team in the future) knows this. If it can’t work versus small ball, that’ll be a complete waste of their talents.

The win officially moves the Pelicans up a notch in the standing, moving past Dallas in the standing. They’re still 3.5 games in back of Denver (with 2 head-to-head games remaining) and 4.5 games behind Portland (with 1 meeting left). Next game on the schedule will be a significant one: BUDDY’S FIRST GAME BACK IN NEW ORLEANS AS A KING :(