Not all losses are created equal.
In some cases a loss can actually pass as a victory, an idea that fans of tanking NBA teams have become intimately familiar with. For teams that begin the year with the bar set on the ground, most games result in either a loss that pushes them closer to the top of the lottery or an upset win that offers a gleam of hope for what the future holds.
Is that an ideal existence? Most would probably argue no, though perhaps there are some Philadelphia natives who would say otherwise. At the very least it is a stable one that, save for the bouncing of the ping-pong balls on Draft Lottery night, allows for minimal turbulence.
For playoff contenders every loss stings, and each represents a wasted opportunity that could cost them a chance to extend their season. Believe it or not, with 82 games in a season there are only so many opportunities that a team can afford to waste, and the Pelicans’ supply is dwindling fast.
After having won six of their previous nine games, the New Orleans Pelicans dropped consecutive games to the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers to fall to 21-25. What was arguably the most frustrating about these and most of their other losses this season is that victory was within their grasp. It would be easy to harp only on the base stats that reflect poor performance in the clutch, but to do so would excuse other problems that have plagued this team just as much, if not more.
The Pelicans’ recent pair of losses to Golden State and Portland both contain a quarter of play in which the defense allowed at least 42 points. These 24 minutes mark turning points in these respective games, but are also indicative of many troubling trends that have put this season (and perhaps the HoliDavis era) in peril.
Curry and the Warriors in the 3rd
No lead is safe against the Golden State Warriors, something they have proven again and again over the course of their historic five-year run of dominance. Despite leading by double digits for long stretches in both the second and third quarters, the Pelicans could not keep the defensive ship above water long enough to pull out the win.
Losing a quarter in which you scored 38 points of your own is tough. Even when the going was good for the Pelicans, some of the cracks that would lead to their downfall were starting to show. Take this play for instance:
Alley-oops to Anthony Davis have a lot of room for error, but not enough for this one to connect. Davis’ attempt to reel in the pass pulls him under the basket which allows the Warriors to get out in transition. The break is still 4-on-4, but the absence of Davis to clean up the mistakes of his teammates makes things easy for any offense, not just a prodigious one. Elfrid Payton loses Kevin Durant as he makes his way down the court in an attempt to switch onto Stephen Curry, but what appears to be a lack of execution by Julius Randle, who is guarding nobody in this sequence, should have cost the Pelicans two easy points — nearly 10 times out of 10 this type of suboptimal play has wound up with that negative result.
Missing bodies in transition hurts the Pelicans on a regular basis. That is in part because of how aggressive they can be on the offensive glass (they rank 4th in the league in securing those second chances), but that cannot serve as an excuse for every successful opposing fast break.
Davis was probably hoping to get a foul call here, but because he does not, he is once again behind the play, leaving Curry with an amount of space that Neil Armstrong would be jealous of. Holiday attempts to make a beeline for the Golden State guard, but is forced to leave the task of slowing him down to Darius Miller, who did not stand a chance.
Davis’ scramble on the floor for the loose ball here results in a decent three-point attempt for Nikola Mirotic. The shot lands right in the hands of Andre Iguodala though despite Davis’ attempt to snag a rebound. As a result, both he and Mirotic are now out of the play, which would have resulted in a wide-open Klay Thompson three-point attempt if not for a foul from Elfrid Payton.
Even when the defense does have time to get set, its mistakes come far too often.
This is a simple pick-and-roll that results in a wide-open layup. Randle inexplicably wanted Davis to react in about a quarter of a second to switch onto the roll man. Sure, it’d be great if Davis could contest every shot near the rim, but doing so here would have been nearly impossible. Once again, this does not appear to be a lack of effort on Randle’s part, but rather a lack of communication, awareness and/or execution that has plagued his defensive play all season.
Miller has unfortunately also been subject to these habits at times, and though he has shown slight signs of improvement as this season has gone on, even the slightest hesitation is enough for Curry to get what he wants.
Miller’s instincts take his body towards the hoop off of the pick, but meeting Curry at the other side of it is what he needed to do instead.
When playing this iteration of the Warriors, there are inevitably going to be moments where their prodigious offensive prowess shines through. The key is to put yourself in a position where these plays are attempting to open a wound, not pouring salt in one that already exists. Thanks to the faulty defensive displays above, Golden State had an avalanche of momentum on their side by the time Curry went supernova, which made each of his points hurt that much more.
Pelicans fans have heard countless instances of play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers praising Davis’ ability to change shots even when he does not block them. His reach is enough to fluster almost every basketball player on the planet. Curry is an, and possibly the, exception.
This play is well defended. Ian Clark (who was playing in this game of basketball for some reason) is able to go over the picks set by Kevin Durant and Draymond Green quickly enough to stay right on Curry’s tail. Davis is able to meet Curry right at the top of the arc. He doesn’t move towards the basket like Miller, but he stands right where he should stand, contests right when he should contest, and yet, the shot fell through the net.
This play is quite similar to the one before it, minus the last-second Davis contest. Clark (yes, THAT Ian Clark) once again tails Curry admirably, but no one is able to get close enough to change the shot. Jrue Holiday makes the right move and follows Durant towards the near corner to prevent the pass. Davis is there to prevent any penetration inside the three-point arc. But the previous eleven minutes of play allowed Oracle Arena to regain its signature electricity, an energy that has proven time and time again to fuel Curry’s ability to change what we think is possible on a basketball court.
The Pelicans only trailed by one after Golden State’s 44 point quarter, but the defense continued to flail and the offense could only do so much. An all-time great team finally showed the fire that they had been missing, and the Pelicans were simply unwitting victims. If not for Portland’s ability to do almost the same exact thing two nights later, maybe we could believe that to be true.
Layman and the Blazers in the 2nd
Curry’s indisputable greatness makes his nuclear showing a tad easier to swallow, but the opposite is true for Jake Layman’s 20-point performance for the Portland Trail Blazers, which anchored a 42-point second quarter. Portland’s third-year reserve deserves a lot of credit for doing what he did against New Orleans to reach 20 points for the second time in his young career, but just as was the case in Oakland, the Pelicans defense was nowhere to be found.
With just under nine minutes remaining in the first half the Pelicans only trailed by one, but the game would not remain close for long.
Mirotic and Julius Randle are sharing the floor here, a pairing that has been downright abysmal on the defensive end this season. As Randle misses his shot, Mirotic is waiting in the corner, hoping that the ball will reach him for an open look. Unfortunately, he waits half a second too long and Meyers Leonard, who was chomping at the bit to get out and run, is able to outpace a now-sprinting Mirotic for the easy basket.
A similar play unfolds here. Mirotic goes for the offensive rebound too aggressively and is the furthest from the next play as a result. Communication falters on the other end, as Frank Jackson leaves Zach Collins to a helping defender that did not exist. Perhaps it was Randle’s responsibility to pick him up and he just simply failed to do so, but he was already trying (we can assume) to track two other players because of Mirotic’s absence.
To score second chance points effectively requires a certain level of physicality and aggressiveness, but also the knowledge to know when the iron is hot enough to strike. Given how poor this team has defended in transition, that may be far less often than we think. By biting off more than they can chew here, the Pelicans get the worst of both worlds on multiple occasions.
Easy offense can also come as a result of giving up offensive rebounds to the other team. Portland, who ranks just below New Orleans in offensive rebound rate, is great at generating and taking advantage of these opportunities.
Watch as the shot goes up all five Pelicans lineup along the baseline as if they are an elementary school class preparing to go to art class. When Jusuf Nurkic is able to swat the ball back to his team, the defense is so out of sorts that Layman winds up with a great mid-range look even with Al-Farouq Aminu wide open right beside him. The made shot is capped by the foul on Nurkic down low, which resulted in a chance for a three-point play.
Faulty execution and bad communication are troubling, but a complete lack of effort is worst of all. Payton passes up an easy layup opportunity to try and feed Davis, which results in a turnover. As a result, both he, Davis and Randle, who flew in for a potential rebound, are now trapped in the paint as the Blazers break down the other end. Holiday opts to bite the bullet and allow Jake Layman to shoot the pull-up three, because he is Jake Layman and not Stephen Curry, but Layman takes advantage and buries the shot.
Layman knocked down another pull-up three as a result of Miller misplaying the pick. Miller flies under the Nurkic screen, and when Jackson darts to follow his own man, Layman has enough space to get off and knock down another shot.
His confidence in full bloom, Layman channeled whatever amount of Curry-like heat check he had in him and brought the lead up to 17.
NBA players are going to make shots every now and then, but a team should only be content with this if they forced their opponent to work hard for said shots. Far too often this season, the Pelicans have made things too easy on the defensive end. As the clutch stats indicate, only one or two possessions have meant the difference in too many losses. Patching even a minimal amount of holes could be enough to right the ship. Time is of the essence, and the Pelicans cannot afford to waste a second if they want to stay afloat.