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New Orleans Pelicans squander opportunity for big road victory, losing 123-115 to Milwaukee Bucks

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New Orleans mounted a nice comeback in the middle of the game but lost all momentum down the stretch.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The seesaw performances we’ve become accustomed to watching over the last few weeks are finally history — if you’re looking for positives.

The New Orleans Pelicans (15-17) had alternated wins and losses since a November 26th loss to the the Boston Celtics, but unfortunately, a 123-115 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night at the Fiserv Forum ended the 11-game roller coaster span on a down note.

Prior to the game, I thought this matchup had the potential to result in a blowout loss. New Orleans was entering the game with an injury-depleted roster and was about to face the number two Eastern Conference team on the road. Missing both Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic, few would have predicted the Pelicans had much of a chance at all, but early in the fourth quarter New Orleans had the lead with a chance to win. Yet, as clutch time moments have usually gone this season, hearts were broken.

Fast Start

New Orleans came out shot happy and on fire from deep in the first quarter. The Pels shot 8-17 from three-point range in the opening frame, including three makes each from Anthony Davis and Darius Miller. All told the Pelicans nailed 12-23 first half three-pointers en route to a franchise record 42 three-point attempts.

One would think a team like the Pelicans doesn’t take this many threes by mistake. Head coach Alvin Gentry and his staff likely emphasized taking more deep shots in this game, but perhaps the players kept shooting them because they kept going in. Either way, New Orleans hit on slightly over 45% of their long range shots — that’s really good by the way.

It wasn’t all roses in the opening half, however, as Anthony Davis went down awkwardly after getting his legs tangles with teammate Andrew Harrison in the closing minutes of the first quarter. Davis would miss the entire second quarter and it was later announced he was also dealing with a stomach bug — but he would return.

When the superstar exited though, the Pelicans found themselves in a crisis. I don’t know about you, but in times of crisis there is only one question I ask, “WHERE IS JAH!!!” Sure enough, with the Pelicans top three bigs all suddenly sidelined, Jahlil Okafor entered the game for his first significant minutes of the regular season, and boy did Jah Rule (okay, I’ll stop now).

Okafor put his impressive offensive game on full display, scoring an uber efficient 17 points in only 13 minutes! Okafor’s strong cameo allowed New Orleans to claim a 66-62 lead heading into halftime. The former 3rd overall pick went 6-8 from the field and even showed off some defensive chops, tallying 2 blocks while looking active and engaged on defense.

Okafor was so good that it really makes you wonder in hindsight why New Orleans failed to give him a bigger bench role given the total dearth of bench scoring previously. Perhaps it was an abberation, but he was a top three pick for a reason. I do expect Gentry to give Jah a few more test drives in the near future though, and if Okafor continues to succeed, he’ll provide the option of reducing the number of minutes of the three bigs ahead of him on the depth chart.

No Davis No Problem

With Anthony Davis out for the first part of the third quarter, Jrue Holiday — as always — picked up the slack. Holiday scored 10 points in the third quarter and finished the game with a brilliant 25-point, 12-assist, five-rebound, two-steal line. What can I say, the man is an All-Star. As per usual, Holiday hounded opposing guards on defense, but these guys aren’t the biggest problem for Milwaukee opponents.

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Bucks All-NBA forward-guard-center-alien Giannis Antetokounmpo is a living nightmare. Even worse, he’s beginning to realize it. The “Greek Freak” terrorized a varied assortment of Pelicans wings throughout the game. New Orleans seemed to primarily guard him with Solomon Hill; however, the Pels helped early and often on Antetokounmpo, forcing him into into six turnovers.

In reality the only Pelican that caused Giannis to hesitate for even a second was of course Anthony Davis. That said, I thought Hill did about as well as you are going to do against Milwaukee’s All-Star. In the halfcourt New Orleans had a good plan to wall off Antetokounmpo and force him into jumpers. However, Giannis remained patient and found his shooters whenever he was prevented from entering the lane.

The toughest part of guarding Antetokounmpo are his attacks in transition. With New Orleans cutting off the lane early, Antetokounmpo adjusted by attacking the Pelicans defense in transition before they could set their defense. That approach worked swimmingly as The Greek Freak’s aggressiveness paid off to the tune of 13 free throw attempts. His shooting remains a huge hole in his game — that will get him bounced early in the playoffs — but it didn’t matter tonight as he got New Orleans into the penalty often.

Disappointing Finish

With 10:51 left in the fourth quarter, New Orleans had a 95-90 lead and it appeared an upset was in the making. However, a crucial sequences with under five minutes remaining aided Milwaukee in putting New Orleans away.

The Pelicans missed three-pointers on three straight possessions, and clinging to a 110-107 lead, Milwaukee drew a foul on New Orleans prior to an inbounds pass. This resulted in the Bucks getting a free throw and the ball. After Milwaukee hit the free throw, New Orleans actually had a fairly good defensive possession, but unfortunately Milwaukee was able to grab two important offensive rebounds that ultimately led to a Bucks three-pointer which pushed the lead to eight. New Orleans continued to fight down the stretch but they were never a serious threat to win after this point.

The Pelicans suffered another disappointing loss, but the team’s effort and resilience were somewhat encouraging. In addition, it will be interesting to see if they continue to take such a high number of three-point shots in the future.

The green light seemed to give some of New Orleans role players a boost of confidence. Darius Miller, who is usually a reluctant shooter, took a season high 11 three-pointers Wednesday night. Miller made six while scoring 20 points on 7 of 15 from the field overall. The Pels will need more of that aggressiveness from Miller if they are to going to improve their woeful bench production.

Next Up

New Orleans stays on the road with a date against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Staples Center. Friday’s game will almost certainly be the most irritating broadcast of the season for Pelicans fans though. The national media — ahem, ESPN — will be in full swing promoting AD as Lebron James’ next maligned sidekick.

Do yourself a favor, skip the pre-game show, turn down the sound and enjoy the Pelicans kicking the Lakers’ ass — I hope!