The right type of victory, at the right juncture, against the right opponent, can serve as a bookmark for the future, propelling a team to bigger and greater things. Sometimes these statement wins come disguised in various forms over a long 82-game NBA season, but in other moments, they’re as obvious as an Anthony Davis highlight reel.
In what was undoubtedly New Orleans’ best victory of this young season, they not only managed to climb back over .500 (7-6), but they did so by defeating a Raptors team (12-2) that had yet to lose a game at home. Oh, and did we mention that both Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton missed the game while nursing right ankle sprains?
In what Anthony Davis labeled the contest as a “Finals preview,” New Orleans did exactly what most championship hopefuls are required to — they played for each other.
One of the best developments, New Orleans only made 13 miscues last night. They had typically been marred by turnovers on too many occasions, eclipsing that amount in some halves throughout the completed portion of the schedule.
The next item on the checklist called for good defense and, lo and behold, mission accomplished! The Raptors entered the matchup ranked second in offensive rating (116.5) and third in points per game (117.9), but the Pelicans held Toronto to 110 points, which only two other teams had previously done this season.
All wasn’t perfect though. The Raptors had open opportunities from deep, but they were uncharacteristically unable to capitalize, shooting 29 percent from three-point range. But the Pels, however, did not allow Toronto many easy looks inside, and brought help on post-up/pick-and-roll looks making Toronto work hard for every opportunity they encountered. A few were even emphatically rejected.
Anthony Davis had enough of this Kawhi show pic.twitter.com/dxQrspUPw6— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) November 13, 2018
Sure, preseason villain Pascal Siakam continued his breakout year, leading Toronto in points with 22, and Serge Ibaka added to his NBA resurgence with another double-double, but all in all the Pelicans were aggressive, resistant, and disciplined defensively all night long.
On the other side of the ball, New Orleans was balanced as they sliced and diced Toronto’s eighth ranked defense. The Pelicans moved the ball well finishing with 30 assists, and displayed great outside-inside attack from the moment the ball tipped off. Leading all scorers was the perpetually underrated E’Twaun Moore, who finished with 30 points, three three’s and three assists. He continuously slashed Toronto’s defense with deep dribble drives and scored on a number of signature floaters.
Raptors All-Star Kyle Lowry took notice of the amount of floaters made in the game even though he was unable to contribute any himself — more on him later.
Toronto’s Kyle Lowry on one factor in #Pelicans racking up 126 points and winning convincingly: “They made probably 80 percent of their floaters.”— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) November 13, 2018
Anthony Davis provided his best Andre Drummond impression, but with a twist, finishing with 25 points, 20 rebounds and six assists, continuing to show his elevation as a passer. Davis kept his game in proximity of the rim, doing a lot of the required dirty work to allow the Pelicans’ guards to roam freely throughout all of the levels of the Raptors defense.
And then we must mention Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans other superstar. If I told you Holiday is now ranked second in assists on the season, would you believe me? You’d be smart to place that bet as Holiday’s 14 dimes in Toronto knocked his per game efforts up to 9.2 assists, trailing only Lowry.
In the midst of his passing wizardry, Holiday poured in 29 points on 19 shots in yet another display to the national television audience of the underrated star power he possesses.
Speaking of power, how great was Holiday’s defense for like the thirteenth time this season? And this leads us to our first of three takeaways from Monday night’s inspiring win.
I must give a shoutout to @bucklezzzman on Twitter for this subtopic title as he’s the first person I’ve seen to claim this phrase. It goes incredibly well with what Holiday is doing to opponents this season!
Looks like the Jruevenile Detention Center has added a new guard! https://t.co/RqzcpxM5Rp— KEV. (@bucklezzzman) November 13, 2018
But in reality, if you’ve watched the Pelicans closely over the years, this display of basketball prowess isn’t new for a healthy Holiday. It’s just that he’s elevated his game another level.
We all remember the memes last season after the Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs. You’d see a random, innocent father with his children photoshopped with the heads of Holiday, Dame Lillard, and C.J. McCollum. There were also some memorable tweets.
Watch “Lockup” bro. It’s a four part series about a guard shackling various trailblazers. Just run it by Jrue first brodie. Enjoy ✊ https://t.co/C1rLgyjvN2— Chris Conner (@Impatientbull) August 14, 2018
Nonetheless, that type of comedy garnered even more widespread attention to the masterful defensive performances by Holiday on the opponents best guard, and sometimes, forward. His selection to the NBA All-Defensive First Team last season may be just the tip of the iceberg. You’ve seen the videos of his lightning quick reflexes and the smothering of several talented offensive guards, but the numbers are starting to speak for themselves.
In their last two games, Devin Booker and Kyle Lowry entered their matchups against New Orleans averaging a combined 43.7 points (Booker - 26.5, Lowry 17.2)...The two were held to a combined 16 points on 5-of-21 shooting from the floor. #DoItBig— Pelicans PR (@PelicansPR) November 13, 2018
Kyle Lowry became the latest victim as he finished with four points on 1-for-9 shooting from the floor. Kawhi Leonard even got a taste of Holiday’s harassing nature and words alone can’t explain his crazed pit-bull efforts.
This is why Jrue was untouchable in trade talks. pic.twitter.com/dMS4Ukrgs6— Jrue-Jitsu Black Belt haver (@RyanJatho) November 13, 2018
As Oleh Kosel aptly mentioned in a wonderfully written piece on Monday morning, Holiday’s next stop could be the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
If you watched Cheick Diallo before the regular season, you probably figured his days were numbered in New Orleans. He appeared focused on expanding his shooting range and hadn’t improved as a defender. His confidence looked shaken — even in an open preseason scrimmage where players were going half-legged, if you will.
So what could help change all of that? A return to the basics.
Anyone else notice how Cheick Diallo doesn't even think about shooting any jumpers right now?— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) November 13, 2018
Long gone are the perimeter jumpers and making a happy return are the hard sprints up the floor, board attacks, and activity on defense. For the New Orleans coaching staff, it’s just with the doctor ordered as they look to get back to full strength.
Diallo finished with eight points, six rebounds, and a timely block in 19 minutes. If he keeps this up, forget Nikola Mirotic’s return, DeMarcus Cousins walking back through that door wouldn’t keep him off the floor.
The lineup dilemma ahead.
The Pelicans look ready to roll again as they’ve seemingly found the rhythm witnessed in their first four games, but with a different cast. The returns of Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton should bring a starting lineup change. But where is the question?
If New Orleans continues to play at the level they exhibited against Toronto, is it an easy decision to perhaps break up that chemistry by inserting additionally talented but rusty players? With Alvin Gentry admitting he may look to find a way to keep Wesley Johnson in the starting lineup last week, would he consider moving E’Twaun Moore to the bench?
And what about the level of efficiency Julius Randle has shown in his time starting for Mirotic? Payton seems to be the safest pick to return to starting duty as Gentry has openly expressed about what Payton means on both sides of the ball for New Orleans. Randle, though, seems to be a better fit on this team to lead his own unit with his ball-handling and playmaking skills. Then again, Randle’s play cannot be discounted by any means. Gentry has been known to go against the grain and ride a wave when something is working with his lineups.
Maybe we’re overthinking things and living in the moment a little too much here, but that doesn’t mean a decision is as easy as it once was close to a week ago. Either way, it’s a problem the Pelicans are quite fortunate to have for once.