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New Orleans Pelicans must improve upon first half defensive efforts to reach maximum potential

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The Pelicans habitually allow opponents to get off to effective starts.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans may have recently made a statement at Air Canada Center on Nov. 11, but it’s already been forgotten in the past.

Not just because of the ‘on to the next’ cliché either.

In the two games following the 126-110 ‘statement’ win over the Toronto Raptors, New Orleans was plagued by disinterested openings that would allow any team in this league the ability to rally its troops. The first of those came against a new-look Timberwolves squad fresh off acquiring Robert Covington and Dario Saric in return for All-Star Jimmy Butler.

The Pelicans allowed 38 total points, six three-point makes and Karl Anthony-Towns to control the game inside on his way to 15 points and nine boards all in the first quarter alone. New Orleans trailed 67-54 at intermission, and it took a second-half surge for New Orleans to even stay within reach before ultimately folding in the final quarter after missing seven of its last 10 shots.

NBA: New York Knicks at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans knows the start is just as important as the finish and also acknowledges the mentality from tip-off forward has to become more focused. Anthony Davis called the clash with Toronto his Finals matchup, but that’s the attitude head coach Alvin Gentry wants his team to have against every opponent on any given night.

“That’s the mental approach that you’ve got to have,” Gentry said after the road loss to Minnesota. “If you’re going to be a really good basketball team, you have to have the focus to go out and every game you have to start it like it’s the seventh game of the championship.”

On a team with two of the top defensive players in the entire NBA, Davis and guard Jrue Holiday, that mental approach should presumably start on the defensive side. New Orleans returned to the Smoothie King Center for a home back-to-back against the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, yet the on-court product in the first leg was still similar to the previous outcomes.

New York started three rookies Friday against the Pelicans — Allonzo Trier, Kevin Knox and ex-Chalmette standout Mitchell Robinson — and jumped out to a 32-16 lead in the first quarter. It was one of the worst stretches of basketball the team has played this season. Davis heated up in the second quarter, which eventually saved them from impending disaster as he carried his momentum out of the halftime break, sparking a second-half emergence that somehow helped lead New Orleans back into the win column.

NBA: New York Knicks at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Davis is used to being ahead by double digits when he posts a monstrous 43-17-5 line in the boxscore like he did that night, but New Orleans didn’t seize the lead until inside the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter. In the Western Conference, Davis understands the Pelicans can’t make a habit of playing from behind if they want to cement a spot as playoff team and surpass last season’s success.

“We haven’t been coming out great defensively,” Davis said. “Offensively we’ve been bad. It’s tough to always play uphill. You’ve got to have a perfect game, and we want to beat the great teams. When you get down like that, they’re not going to let us comeback.”

“We can’t worry about our offense; we’ve got to do it on the defensive end. They were too comfortable. Any team who gets comfortable, no matter who they are, they’re going to be able to score the basketball and play with a lot of confidence.”

Gentry felt that dribble penetration had been a significant issue, coupled with allowing early misses on offense to dictate the defensive intensity. However, that wasn’t a problem against Denver in the slightest. Davis didn’t have to worry about offense at all as the Pelicans hustled to a 70-point first half. Rather, the defensive end remained a concern with the Nuggets amassing 67 points themselves.

The pattern should be obvious: 67, 64 and 67. That’s the number of points the Pelicans have given up in the first half of their previous three games, but this has been an issue since opening night. Have a look at how the offense and defense have performed in the first and second halves thus far.

Offensive Rating Points FG% 3PT% Defensive Rating Opponents points Opponent FG% Opponent 3PT%
First Half 111.3 (7th) 59.1 (6th) 47.6% (9th) 35.3% (18th) 116.6 (30th) 61.8 (30th) 48.2% (26th) 39.6% (26th)
Second Half 113.4 (5th) 59.1 (2nd) 48.4% (2nd) 35.4% (14th) 104.4 (8th) 54.4 (14th) 44.1% (6th) 33.5% (10th)

Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic scored 18 points in the first quarter Saturday, his team shot better than the Pelicans across the board in the first half and 38 of their first 67 points came inside the paint. Nonetheless, New Orleans managed to decisively top Denver by a 125-115 margin because Anthony Davis punished Denver at the line, making 20 of his 21 free throw attempts. The Pelicans got out to a 17-0 lead in fast break points, and the Do It Big-Three (Davis, Randle, Mirotic) combined for 81 points on the evening.

It was the perfect storm.

But what happens when the officials swallow their whistles, when the fast-break chances just simply aren’t there or when the core isn’t quite at its best?

There’s no question the Pelicans did a good job of guarding who they needed to in order to pull out the win. Despite a hot start, Jokic scored only seven more points during the next 36 minutes of regulation. In addition, Holiday made his usual work of Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who went just 4-of-14 from the field.

“Overall, I thought it was a good team defense effort,” Gentry said. “I thought we played well because I thought we did a good job of just playing together and playing for each other.”

All of which is true. Look, we’re also talking about a four-game stretch here where the Pelicans went 3-1. It’s what good teams do — find a way to win. That means even on a bad night, or even when you just have to out-produce the opposition. However, when the teams’s first-half defense wallows in the cellar in a lot of metrics, screams for improvement can be heard to Baton Rouge.

The Pelicans can and must do a better job of setting a stronger defensive tone early. Only then will they be able to gain consistency and post a W/L record that is rarely ever enjoyed in New Orleans.