After their impressive season-opening win over the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night, the New Orleans Pelicans (1-0) continue their visits to Champions of Eastern Conference past with a Christmas Day matchup facing the Miami Heat (0-1).
The Pels are 1-2 on Christmas after knocking off Denver last season, behind Brandon Ingram’s 31 points (7-9 3PA) and seven rebounds. Now they get a chance to extend a pair of winning streaks to begin this new era.
It won’t be easy, considering the opponent. The Heat are coming off of a tough loss in their opener against the Orlando Magic.
It’s a testament to the star power of the franchise and the expectations of the league, that New Orleans is getting the spotlight. The Golden State Warriors being the only other team that didn’t make the postseason playing on Friday.
“I think it’s special, us playing on Christmas,” said Eric Bledsoe. “It’s something you can always look back on and say you did something that’s meaningful. Playing on Christmas is one of those things.”
These teams met in the preseason opener for both franchises, with Miami playing without the services of either Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic, and New Orleans coasting to a 114-92 victory.
Don’t expect many lessons to carry over from that game strategically. Stan Van Gundy, his staff, and his team had just begun the process of getting to know each other. At that time, just seeing what this group looked like together (minus Eric Bledsoe) was more important than worrying about what the Heat was attempting to do.
While a double-digit victory, on the road, over a top-tier opponent is everything Pelicans fans were hoping for, there were some areas in need of improvement.
New Orleans turned the ball over 27 times. Though Stan Van Gundy’s career record sits at 3-0 when his teams have given it away that often, it isn’t something he’d like to see replicated as the season of giving reaches its apex.
“We’ve got a long way to go. None of us are kidding ourselves on that,” Van Gundy said. “It was a good win. We showed great resilience. We did some very good things, but we also did a lot of things that we have to improve greatly for us to have the kind of season that we want.”
The Pelicans did perform well in a number of other areas offensively. They shot the balls lights out, making nearly 53 percent of their attempts overall, and better than 45 percent from distance.
New Orleans won in transition points and points off of turnovers. Though their free throw shooting was abysmal, they took eight more attempts than the Raptors.
“On misses, when we get stops, we’re always just going,” Van Gundy said. “And quite honestly, that’s when we’ve been at our best...when we’re out in transition. We’ve got two really good point guards who can make plays in the open floor.”
But Toronto’s defense was able to take away Zion Williamson for the most part, in limiting him to nine shot attempts. Miami may take a similar approach, and the Heat are not interested in running up and down the floor with the Pelicans. SVG will have to see improvement when things slow down.
“We’ve got to get better at playing against set defense in the half court,” he added. “That hasn’t been nearly good enough, and a large part of that is me. I have to find a structure, and a balance between a structure and a freedom that will allow our guys to flow a lot better than we are right now.”
Zion Williamson and the Pelicans dominated the Heat inside throughout that preseason contest, outrebounding Miami by 16, and getting to the free throw line 31 times. If Adams can successfully clear space down low for Zion to operate, it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar results on Friday.
Miami allowed five Orlando players to reach double figures, while surrendering 113 to the Magic. The Magic shot 30 free throws in the game and made their threes.
The Heat had problems containing Evan Fournier in their opener; a talented player for certain, but not Brandon Ingram-level talented. The Pelicans have more than enough offensive versatility to exploit mismatches, however they present themselves.
On the defensive end, the Pelicans stayed on task against Toronto, adhering to Van Gundy’s preseason points of emphasis; defending without fouling, protecting the paint, and winning the rebounding battle.
To that end, New Orleans held the Raptors below 100 points, a feat the team managed only four times all of last season. After some solid defensive showings in the preseason, the Pelicans finally have a legitimate starting point from which to gauge their progress.
Miami isn’t a threat in transition, but they will attack the rim, both to score and to create shooting windows for Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Dragic.
Bam Adebayo won’t light up a defense with his jump shot, but he is relentless and skilled around the basket.
“It’s another good baseline I think,” said Steven Adams. “Regular season games are much different to preseason games. I think it’s a good start...We can’t rely on just fully shutting someone down. The players are just too good. It’s more about how can we adjust, help, and rotate.”
It could be daunting to face two title contenders right out of the gate, but New Orleans appears to be keeping their attentions on the right things so far.
“You’re always excited for a challenge, but at the same time, I think we’re just focused on ourselves,” Bledsoe said. “How we can get better individually and as a team. Every game will be different, so we’ll just go in, try to follow the game plan, and for the most important part...compete. Compete out there and give ourselves a chance to win the game.”
Expect the Pelicans to have a very good chance to win the game, and deliver a Christmas gift for the second season in a row.
Who: New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat
When: December 25, 11:00 a.m. Central
Where to watch: FSNO, ESPN
Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM