If you thought the first two-thirds of the season were fun, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
After what may have been the worst loss of the season to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Memphis Grizzlies’ fanbase drew a huge breath and exhaled a sigh of relief at the New Orleans Pelicans’ misfortunes.
Back-to-back wins against the Miami Heat and those same T’Wolves have the Pelicans very much in the thick of the playoff chase.
Five-Thirty Eight still gives our Bayou Boys a 60 percent chance of locking up that final spot in the Western Conference. After all, they’ve got the league’s easiest remaining strength of schedule but a fairly sizable margin. Even better, they get to face all their would-be challengers along the way.
14 of the Pelicans' final 15 games are against opponents under .500. This is their schedule until then:— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) February 27, 2020
-Cavs, Lakers, Wolves, @ Mavs, Heat, @ Wolves, @ Kings, @ Clippers, @ Jazz
If they can win just four of these games, they'll be in an excellent position to make the playoffs
Memphis: Second-Most Difficult Remaining SOS
The Pelicans face the Memphis Grizzlies on March 21st and 24th, respectively. They’ve won the first two matchups already. Stamping out their cousins and rookie Ja Morant not only strongly increase their playoff odds, it pushes Zion Williamson right back into the ROY conversation.
San Antonio: 11th-Easiest Remaining SOS
A dark-horse for the eighth seed could be the San Antonio Spurs, who face off against the Pelicans another three times on March 18th, April 5th and 15th. The Pelicans will have a lot to say about the Spurs’ odds of overcoming their challengers by either dominating or being rolled over by their Texan neighbors.
Portland: Eighth-Easiest Remaining SOS
New Orleans has already swept the Portland Trail Blazers and clinched the tiebreaker. You can never count out Damian Lillard, but he doesn’t matter with the matchups behind them. The Pelicans simply need to win the games in front of them. Nothing else matters.
Sacramento Kings: 12th-Easiest Remaining SOS
Here’s where things get a bit sticky. The Sacramento Kings no longer suck.
The Kings have won seven of ten and 13 of their last 20 with losses having come at the hands of pretty solid teams in Toronto, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers.
You can chase their resurgence right back to January 24th. A couple of days after Zion made his debut, the Kings grabbed their lightsaber and started hacking back at Kylo Ren.
We’ll shout from the rooftops for anyone willing to listen that the Pelicans are the fifth-best team in the NBA since that point. The Kings are 13th. In the past ten games though, the Pelicans are 10th and the Kings are eighth.
The Kings may pose the biggest threat to the Pelicans out West for the eighth and final spot and the two teams still have a few games left to play (tonight and March 22nd). Yeah, they’re critical. Losing one could be devastating. Losing both could possibly mean the end.
DeAaron Fox last 5 games— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) March 2, 2020
Sacramento is only 3 games back from the 8th seed pic.twitter.com/PisaOIpyBl
In order to prevent this undesirable outcome, the backcourt tag team of Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday must stop De’Aaron Fox. In their first matchup this season, Ball (24 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) shined brighter than Fox (17 points, five assists, three rebounds), but Sacramento’s point guard has stepped up his production recently.
Over the past three weeks, Fox is averaging 23.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. This whirling dervish converts 63 percent of his shots at the cup, which if you remember is Zion’s efficiency.
Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes have been absolute nightmares for opponents from the perimeter, averaging a combined 34 points and 46 percent shooting from three on 13 attempts per game. You should specifically remember Barnes after the former champion scorched the Pelicans for 30 points on an infuriating 12 shots on January 4th. Fox played a close second fiddle with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
Recent addition Kent Bazemore has performed admirably off the Kings’ bench since his arrival, shooting over 41 percent from three while contributing 12.3 points and six rebounds.
You’ll recognize several recent role players who could step up and penalize the Pelicans in Harry Giles, Richaun Holmes, Nemanja Bjelica and Corey Joseph. You will not see Marvin Bagley III (foot) and probably no Jabari Parker (illness) either, who has played just once in the previous ten games.
On the season the Kings have struggled to rebound (28th) and get to the line (28th). While Fox is one of the NBA’s fastest players, the Kings run a slower pace than most (25th).
Meet the best five-man lineup in the NBA (26.3 net-rating).— The Bird Writes (@thebirdwrites) March 10, 2020
*minimum 200 minutes pic.twitter.com/x8YT36FIFd
Lucky for the Pelicans, their starting five has been balling out since joining forces on January 22nd, posting the best net-rating in the NBA since that time.
Not too shabby.
The problem is the Pelicans are still finding ways to lose games through the disappointing play of their bench and their failures in clutch minutes.
In fact, crunch time failure has been a common theme during head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure. It’s not an indictment of the coach so much as it is of the team. We know about the injury luck, the pouty superstars, all of that. Bottom line they haven’t gotten it done at critical moments and it’s been the offense, not the defense, every time.
Offensive Rating in Clutch
- 2019-20 - 96.0
- 2018-19 - 100.0
- 2017-18 - 109.5
- 2016-17 - 94.3
- 2015-16 - 107.0
Defenses traditionally tighten up during these moments and offenses resort to one-on-one basketball in many scenarios, but the Pelicans still fall far below that of league average, where they are supposed to be an offensive-minded team led by an offensive-minded coach.
Good news, though! In fourth quarters, the Pelicans starting five has been AWESOME posting net-ratings of 7.4 or 18.8 when one of Zion or Josh Hart joins Lonzo - Jrue - Ingram - Favors.
Play the starters.
Josh Hart (-6.8 plus/minus) and Nicolo Melli (-6.8 plus/minus) continue to fill their roles dependably through force of will and deft touch from the perimeter, respectively. But it hasn’t been enough as evidenced by their on court ratings in the past ten games.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Pelicans' second unit. pic.twitter.com/jKQv7AOoiI— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) March 8, 2020
E’Twaun Moore (-3.8 plus/minus) and Frank Jackson (-1.9 plus/minus) have been equally disappointing, each failing to shoot above 40 percent from the floor during that time (though Jackson has shot nearly 39 percent from three).
These two have been the ill subject of a numbers game. Their minutes and opportunities continue to be wildly sporadic despite JJ Redick’s absence. It’s hard to judge them harshly and yet the Pelicans need better — the play of the starters demands it.
Frankly, the starting five should be frustrated. After building up leads in the majority of games, they watch it dissipate moments later. Hopefully, Redick returns soon. Kenrich Williams may make an appearance in time, too.
Until then, whoever Gentry calls upon needs to step up. The season may depend on it.
The Pelicans barely managed to survive these Kings two months ago in what may become one of the more critical victories of the season. Unfortunately, they won’t have JJ Redick this time. Think they can pull it off?!
JJ Redick says game. Good night Pelicans' fans! pic.twitter.com/hrmg5fyypz— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) January 5, 2020
Hey, you! Read my article about Zion is destined to become the NBA’s highest-paid athlete in off-court earnings. He’s already fourth! Click here!
You can also hear my entire conversation with Kevin Durant’s manager, Rich Kleiman below.
Thanks for reading, and as always,
LET’S GEAUX, PELS!
Where To Watch/Listen
What: New Orleans Pelicans (28-36) at Sacramento Kings (28-36)
Where: Golden 1 Center, CA
When: Wednesday, March 11, 2020, 9:30 PM
Watch: ESPN, FSNO
Listen: ESPN Radio 100.3 FM