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Breaking down the offense: Why the New Orleans Pelicans fall apart in crunch time

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The team continues to come up short when it matters most and the offense is wholly to blame.

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

The New Orleans Pelicans continue to fail late after dropping their fourth consecutive contest to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Much like in the loss to the Lakers, the Pelicans had a brief lead near the end following three-point conversions from JJ Redick but were unable to hang on for the victory. Most would believe the league’s 27th-worst defense is to blame, but the problem actually lies with the offense, as it completely bogs down in important, crucial minutes.

The Pelicans defense in clutch opportunities carries a 109.5 defensive rating, similar to last season’s 108.8. While far from elite, that currently ranks 19th in the NBA and is better than their overall defensive rating of 113.4.

However, offensively, their 13th-best figure of 109.5 drops to a horrifying 83.1 inside the final five minutes of games where the difference in the score is five points or less.

Head coach Alvin Gentry cites a lack of ball movement. Is that the culprit?

First, let’s break down what the Pelicans’ offense typically looks like over the course of a game and then compare it to the final frame.

Like many offenses, the Pelicans rely on movement of the basketball. The multiple actions that take place on nearly every possession provide easy looks at the basket. Typically, there is at least one main action instigated either from the the top of the key, where the primary ball handler utilizes the pick-and-roll to generate space and make a play on the ball, or from the wing, where a perimeter player takes advantage of a corner pin down screen from a big. In the video above, Kenrich Williams does just that.

However, the Pelicans also look to take advantage of opponents through their superior playmakers in isolation based on matchup or circumstance. For example, Brandon Ingram can get the edge on nearly every player in the NBA with his combination of footwork, sinewy build and length.

Jrue Holiday is another who can use his physicality and touch to get past any defender and into the lane. He can finish with both hands and often employs the use of a euro-step to get around longer defenders.

This is where the Pelicans offense operates at its finest — When the action takes place within the confines of its design, resulting in the best possible look. The offense fails when indecision strikes or a low-efficiency shot takes place. This is not an indictment of these players, only an example of what bogs down the Gentry’s game plan.

Shot selection

On Friday night the Pelicans missed 10 of their last 11 shots, including seven straight from three-point range. They also missed five of their last six field goal attempts against the Lakers.

Should the Pelicans have utilized the high pick-and-roll or corner-pin-down screen to get more momentum heading toward the basket? Would those actions have created a higher probability of getting a foul called? Probably, but each of those were taken by Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick and E’Twaun Moore, the team’s deadliest three-point shooters. You have to live with those results if they’re firing away within the flow of the offense. And while the Pelicans drop from fourth to tenth in three-point shooting in the fourth quarter, a mark of 36.8 percent is hardly the reason for late game collapses.

This shot above by Jrue Holiday is a good look and fits within the flow of the offense. It’s a simple double-action resulting in a high-screen-and-roll with a clear look at the basket. Holiday just failed to convert the opportunity. Maybe he waited too long or didn’t get enough lift. Perhaps Steven Adams just made a terrific play on the ball. Either way, this is just a simple failure of execution. When the Pelicans move the ball like this, they should expect better results going forward.

Turnovers? Not really.

Turnovers are not to blame though many of us may cite Holiday’s dribble catastrophes late in games. But truth be told, the Pelicans’ turnover percentage in clutch (8.2 percent, sixth) is far below of what is seen in the rest of the game (15.5 percent, 19th).

However, ball movement is compromised due to the lack of ball flow. When the Pelicans hold onto the ball, they go from 25 assists per 36 to 10.6 during clutch minutes. That’s a monumental difference.

Injuries?

The return of those injured might solve some of the Pelicans scoring woes late in games. While Derrick Favors would seemingly not increase the offense’s proficiency, his pick-and-roll chemistry with Holiday has been impressive in spurts and he has been remarkably efficient around the basket. However, Favors is averaging just 21 minutes per game in games he does play, often sitting during these crucial stretches.

Zion has shown an elite ability to drive to the basket, something the Pelicans could desperately use late in games. However, remember that Nickeil Alexander-Walker was otherworldly in the preseason as well (15.4 points, four assists, 2.3 rebounds on 47.4 percent shooting versus 6.3 points, 2.3 rebound, 2.3 assists on 32.1 percent shooting in the regular season). We don’t yet know if Zion’s game will immediately translate to an elite-level finisher and closer when paired against the very best in the NBA. We also can’t predict his fit next to the rest of the group. Will he, Ingram and Favors close together or will Zion move to the 5 in a small-ball unit?

Lineups?

The Pelicans opted not to include Jaxson Hayes to close against the Lakers and it may have cost them. His ability to create something out of nothing by following missed shots could have scored the Pelicans an easy bucket or two. Hayes, Jahlil Okafor and Derrick Favors all boast the three highest effective field goal percentages on the team and could help facilitate a little offense.

Additionally, Kenrich Williams didn’t find his way into major minutes until the second week of the season and Lonzo Ball has continually struggled in measured opportunities.

However, a missed rotational player or two can’t be the reason for the Pelicans 88.0 offensive rating. Granted, a substitution here or there could provide incremental improvement but not likely the vast kind we’re looking for.

Playing from behind?

But what if we’re overrating clutch statistics? After all, the Pelicans are 23rd in net rating in the first quarter, 28th in the second quarter.

Put simply, New Orleans is always playing from behind.

This effect of playing from behind is created from desperation. There’s little pressure when the Pelicans begin their comeback, plus it creates a wonderful energy. However, maintaining the momentum is problematic. Timeouts happen, opponents make adjustments, and players are human — they probably get tired. So when this mindset remains at the end of games, it can lead to questionable decisions and the compulsion to fire away.

More than likely, the Pelicans will continue to fail in clutch minutes until they can put up better first half performances, like the one witnessed against the Lakers. As difficult as it may be to admit, the Pelicans didn’t fail against the Lakers due to a lack of focus or execution in the fourth. They are the fifth-best defensive team in the NBA and just as sharp in crunch time.

Just like Gentry says, it’s ball movement and shooting

The Pelicans are shooting a woeful 29.7 percent (28.6 percent from three) when it matters most. As I mentioned earlier, they’re only moving the ball at a rate of 10.6 assists per 36, far below their regular season average of 25.

The Pelicans can solve their late game woes by attacking the basket through actions like the one with Holiday and shying away from the barrage of three-pointers — even if they have one of the game’s best (Redick) at their disposal.

As you see above, this is run within the parameters of the Pelicans offense and should convert to points. Can it be as simple as the team just not making shots they need to make? After all, Redick is shooting 45 percent above the break on the season for an eFG of 67.8%!

It’s a peculiar predicament to be sure — the same actions throughout the contest fail to work late. If fatigue is to blame significantly, recall that these are some of the best athletes in the world. So what do we make of the fact that the team has possessed a 24th or worse clutch offensive rating in three of Gentry’s seasons?

In 2017-18, the Pelicans posted their best season in this statistic, the Pelicans shot over 48 percent and moved the basketball at a rate of 16.6 assists per 36 in clutch, a much more practical number due to their style.

The hope has to be the Pelicans find a way to move the ball with more proficiency and convert in what should be convertible opportunities like in the two examples shown above, but we are very nearly one-quarter of a way through the regular season. New Orleans may soon begin running out of time even though they only trail the eighth-seeded Sun by 2.5 games. The Pelicans have a brutal stretch over the next month. Now, if the offense could suddenly gel over this upcoming stretch in moments that truly count, then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t feel like all hope is lost.