The New Orleans Pelicans put up another valiant fight against the Los Angeles Lakers, but ultimately LeBron James and his troops prevailed 122-114 on Sunday evening inside the Smoothie King Center — despite Anthony Davis sitting this one out.
Late-game collapses were unfortunately a consistent theme in three of their four matchups and was primarily responsible for the Pelicans getting swept by the Lakers in the season series.
Recall that the Pelicans grabbed a momentary 101-95 lead less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, but were outscored 27-13 the rest of the way. Los Angeles hit 10 of 18 shots during the final stretch while New Orleans connected on just four of 17 from the field.
We witnessed very similar events unfold this past Tuesday out in L.A. Both teams were tied at 95 apiece following a Lonzo Ball three-pointer with 8:42 to go, but the Pelicans wilted to a 118-109 defeat after 3-15 shooting down the stretch, with the Lakers canning 8 of 17.
And in the teams’ first matchup way back in November, the Pelicans opened the fourth quarter with an 89-79 lead. They proceeded to lose 114-110 as the Lakers converted 12 of 18 shots for 35 points in that deciding last frame while the Pelicans only managed 21 points on 4 of 20 shooting from the field.
If you need some help with the math, Los Angeles outscored New Orleans by 37 points over a combined 30:57 down the stretch of three games. That’s on a pace of getting blown out by 60 points in a full regulation game of 48 minutes! And the biggest reason for the slaughter? An overwhelming inability to put the ball through the hoop as compared to the opponent. In a hair over half an hour of basketball, the Pelicans produced a paltry 21.2 FG%. Conversely, the Lakers owned a 56.6 FG% over the same span.
Despite adding the super weapon known as Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans remain a very young and flawed team. Case in point, New Orleans has beaten teams with records over .500 just twice in eight tries since January 22nd. Not coincidentally, they’re still a horrible performer in clutch minutes, posting a 2-6 record and a sickening -29.4 Net Rating since Zion’s debut.
Yes, Zion scored an astounding 35 points, a new career-high, and he barely missed anything he tossed at the rim (12 of 16 shooting from the field and 11 of 13 from the free throw), but did you know that he was also responsible for six turnovers? (We’re going to save the defensive and rebounding errors for another time.)
“Oh, I thought he played great,” said Alvin Gentry. “I think he’ll have to learn a little bit more about putting the ball down and knowing that they’re going to come double and things like that. But as far as playing with physicality and force, I thought he did a good job with that.”
Those six turnovers mattered to the bottom line. As did the team’s total of 16 turnovers. You see, the Lakers tallied more than 30 fastbreak points (FBPS). Again. They had 36 FBPS on Tuesday and added another 33 on Sunday. That’s just a ridiculous amount of easy points — and further proof that the Pelicans need plenty more seasoning before anyone should be anointing them a playoff-caliber squad.
This same lens needs to be utilized when grading Brandon Ingram’s performance. B.I. struggled to find the bottom of the net throughout the contest, scoring 15 points on 23 shots, but he’s in the midst of ironing out his game. His handle is still a work in progress. His reads as an offensive initiator need to get better. This 22-year-old isn’t going to be as dependable as LeBron every night of his career despite earning his first All-Star nomination. And yet, his ineffectiveness is a burden shared by the entire team.
“Well, they play long guys on him and then they run guys at him all the time,” Gentry said. “What we have to do is that we’ve got to do a little bit better job of playing in space but also not having what we call just perimeter offense where we’re passing the ball on the perimeter. We’ve got to get more cutters, and we’ve got to get more dribble penetration, and drives and kicks, and things like that.”
Zion and Brandon are still growing, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process of grooming talent. Just as it’s appropriate to accolade their wonderful accomplishments at their tender ages — Zion’s scored over 20+ points in 11 straight games now, it’s also fine to point out their mistakes for improvement purposes. However, this duo was far from the only culpable Pelicans.
With no JJ Redick to open up the floor automatically, someone needed to consistently space the floor and New Orleans failed in that department for a second time against the Lakers in the past week. A quick scan of the boxscore shows Nicolo Melli and Lonzo Ball struggled practically as much as Ingram from three-point range. Conversely, Jrue Holiday probably didn’t look to attack enough, especially in light of his instrumental 14-point crunch time impact against the Pacers in a recent victory. And before we lament Frank Jackson for his complete dumpster fire of a run in five short minutes, realize five-man units failed just as painfully, too.
With the Smoothie King Center’s public WiFi signal failing to work adequately due to the capacity crowd on hand, I was able to focus all of my energy exclusively on the game. In addition to noting all the individual deficiencies, I viewed too much troublesome execution by the entire Pelicans’ team.
LeBron James picked apart the New Orleans’ defense to the tune of 34 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists. When the Pelicans failed to double-team him, he destroyed his defensive assignment one-on-one. When they did send an extra man, he found the open Laker which resulted in points as well.
However, what bothered me infinitely more than New Orleans proving unable to slow down a genuine MVP was their execution on the other end of the floor.
I vividly recall New Orleans screwing up at least three offensive possessions whereby they had the man advantage and should have put points on the scoreboard. Each time though, the Lakers made them pay for their failures and scored quickly on their ensuing touches. Two four-point swings and one five-point swing in the second half against the best. That’s a real problem — but another indication of where New Orleans stands among the rest of the competition in the Western Conference.
Is it disappointing that the Pelicans were unable to take a single game from the Lakers on the season? That New Orleans slipped three games behind the Memphis Grizzlies and into a tie with the Sacramento Kings for 9th? Yes and yes, but it’s not the end of the world.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a highly entertaining squad which emits vast amounts of potential, but they're still a ways from their day in the sun. No one likes losses or the struggle to just squeeze into a postseason, but it’s a process that this inexperienced group must undertake. Just as in life, one doesn’t grow up overnight.