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New Orleans Pelicans show surprising spark but fail to climb over hump against OKC Thunder, losing 122-116

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Moral victories aren’t accepted everywhere like Discover cards, but given the season it’s been, we’ll take what we can get.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder squared off Thursday in a contest that most would have assumed would undoubtedly result in a lopsided score after looking at the starting lineups.

During certain moments, the Thunder were able to deliver big blows, going on powerful scoring runs and appearing to bury an undermanned Pelicans squad. Led by Russell Westbrook’s 15th triple double (23 points, 17 rebounds, 16 assists) and double-doubles from both Paul George (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Steven Adams (20 points, 13 rebounds), the Thunder were successful from a formulaic perspective in notching the 122-116 victory.

What they likely didn’t expect was the high-effort driven performance from a Pelicans team missing Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore.

What we liked:

The fight and energy.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been some games that have made viewers embarrassed for investing their time. From effort lapses to mental breakdowns, New Orleans has supplied enough clunkers to this point.

The spectacular plays and heroic performances are exciting to watch, but a team who gives a damn for an entire 48 minutes provides the ultimate fun experience. It’s what the average fan hopes for, as they often know hard work in ways their paychecks often don’t reflect. They want their sports teams to have a similar base, and whatever comes from that, everyone will gladly accept.

The Pelicans, even in a loss, gave that performance this Thursday evening.

Despite trailing by double digits multiple times and facing a deficit as high as 22 points, New Orleans rallied back several times in a manner that had to be respected.

The Pelicans had plenty of opportunities to mail it in on the road with several key contributors sidelined, but they didn’t and thrived on the energy of several players down the bench. Moral victories aren’t accepted everywhere like Discover cards, but given the season it’s been, we’ll take what we can get.

What we didn’t like:

The three-point shooting.

The Pelicans haven’t been the best from long range this season but far from the worst too. Just an average shooting performance tonight (or a few days ago) might have put them in a more favorable position. New Orleans shot a paltry 27 percent as the Thunder shot a much more efficient 43 percent. In a six-point loss, the Thunder scored 12 more points from the three-point line despite taking four fewer attempts.

We know New Orleans isn’t Golden State, but it’s very hard to run the pace and be the team Alvin Gentry wants without knocking down the long ball consistently enough. We can debate later about what style matches his current roster best...

When it was over:

Frank Jackson’s missed three with a minute left.

With the Pelicans down five — similar to Wednesday’s matchup against Detroit, rookie Frank Jackson had a chance to make a big basket and close New Orleans deficit to a single possession. While he missed for the second game in a row, lets commend Jackson for having the guts to confidently taking that shot again. Eventually, that shot will go down for him and he’ll point to his latest two disappointments as the impetus for improvement.

Thursday, however, it was the end of the Pels late run. Jackson’s attempt could have cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two. Instead, the Thunder capitalized on the miss and Russell Westbrook later found himself at the free-throw line.

Just keep shooting “Franky J”.

Observations:

1. The cast of misfits stepped up and didn’t back down.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

So Solomon Hill started in a lineup next to Jahlil Okafor and Darius Miller on the road versus a number three seeded Oklahoma Thunder team.

What could go wrong?

If that wasn’t tough enough sledding, the Pelicans bench was anchored by rookie Frank Jackson and rotation inconsistency majors Cheick Diallo, Kenrich Williams, and Ian Clark. While things weren’t perfect, almost every single player was involved in at least a few impactful sequences.

Diallo and Jackson played so well that they were a part of the finishing five that had a chance to make the game really interesting in the final minutes. And while Okafor had some struggles defensively, he had another nice night offensively and on the boards as his night concluded with 18 points and eight rebounds.

Darius Miller had his stroke working as he poured in 21 points including 5-10 from deep, and if you believe in plus minus, Solo had a Pelicans starters-leading negative two. Overall, this cast gave Oklahoma City all they wanted to handle, especially considering NOLA was on the second night of a back-to-back.

It will be interesting to see how each of these players continue to build towards something positive as the Pelicans start getting players back healthy.

2. Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday enjoyed arguably their best game together this season.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been waiting awhile for Jrue Holiday and Elfrid Payton to have another awesome game together. The defensive potential and the playmaking tendencies of both make the two quite the unique pair.

Payton’s battles with injury and confidence has stripped the duo of building chemistry, but Thursday we saw them click quite well. Both Payton (15 points, 12 assists) and Holiday (22 points, 13 assists, nine rebounds) finished with double-doubles and repeatedly sliced through the Thunder’s stubborn defense (ranked 4th in defensive rating).

We know what Jrue provides on a nightly basis, but if Payton can perform like this and help control a game, a healthier roster may provide different outcomes in future meetings.

Up Next: 1/26 San Antonio Spurs

Who knows which Pelicans players will be available to suit up as the division-rival Spurs come to town Saturday. But if NOLA can display this same type of energy at home that they showed on the road Thursday, it will make for one fun contest.

Geaux Pels!