Whether or not the New Orleans Pelicans win the NBA championship, they can lay claim to the exhibition game title.
The Pelicans are now 8-0 in those games, 3-0 while preparing for the restart of the 2019-20 season.
Monday night, the Pelicans polished off the Milwaukee Bucks 124-103. New Orleans trailed by as many as 13 points before outscoring Milwaukee by 30 points over the final three quarters.
The Bucks have been the league’s best defensive team all year, and they showed why against the Pelicans early. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton set the tone as the Bucks capitalized on misfired shots and a few mistakes in building their early lead.
Once the Pelicans began to settle down in the second quarter, their defense, which had improved so greatly prior to the shutdown, rose to the occasion.
New Orleans held the Bucks to under 40 percent shooting for the game, including 26 percent from beyond the arc.
With Alvin Gentry limiting his starters to under 25 minutes each, the second unit did most of the damage for New Orleans, scoring 73 points on the night. JJ Redick caught fire in the third quarter, scoring all 20 of his points in the final 4:49 of the period.
Redick made 4 of 5 three-point attempts, a two-pointer just inside the arc, and knocked down six free throws. He was 8 of 15 from deep in the three scrimmages, showing that his stroke is in mid/post/restart?-season form.
Like Billy Hoyle, JJ was in the zone.
“It just feels like you can’t miss,” Redick said of that stretch. “Just please give me the ball on every possession, and I’m going to try to shoot. That’s what it feels like.”
New Orleans attempted 47 three pointers on the night, making 17. With Milwaukee’s ability to control the paint defensively, Gentry made the three a focal point of the team’s offensive strategy.
“Coach (Chris) Finch told the guys tonight that against this team, you got to get up 40 threes,’ said Gentry. “I think we shot 44 [three-pointers] or something, I’m not sure. They take away all the inside stuff, but they give up a lot of threes, and our guys did a really good job.”
Most of those guys came off the bench. Jaxson Hayes had 17 points with Frank Jackson adding 16 on a combined 10 of 16 shooting night. With Hayes doing his damage inside, and Jackson making a trio of three-pointers, the pair excited Pelicans fans waiting for both to consistently tap into their potential.
“Well. I got to give credit to our bench,” added Gentry. “Our bench was really good. Frank Jackson, I thought, played one of his better games for us. Jaxson Hayes was really good. Nickeil (Alexander-Walker) had his moments. It’s one of those deals where it was a total team effort, but I was really happy with the young guys.”
Overthinking and over-analyzing an exhibition games is never a wise choice, but there is one very big difference between the Pelicans’ 5-0 preseason and their 3-0 record over the past week.
New Orleans barely squeaked by in accumulating those five preseason wins. They were players unfamiliar with each other, in search of leaders and an identity.
These Pelicans destroyed their competition. Over three games, New Orleans averaged 114 points and won by more than 22 points per game.
In just over two days, it gets real. The Pelicans will face the Utah Jazz to open up the seeding schedule. They look ready. They feel ready. New Orleans is 1-2 against Utah this season, but the losses could have gone either way, and in none of those games did the Pelicans have Zion Williamson on the court. This should be different.
“We’re very familiar with the Utah team, so we know some of the things they like to do,” said Brandon Ingram after scoring 14 points on the night. “But, we have to bring the effort. We have to continue to bring the effort on the defensive end, continue to share the basketball on the offensive end, and we’ll get the best results out of that. We’ll live with the results and just try to get better from there.”
“The ‘ramping up’ part is going to be – the intensity level is going to be much, much higher. I think our guys are ready,” Gentry added. “I think they’re confident. We’ll see what happens, but I’m pretty confident that our guys will compete at a high level and be ready to play.”
So here we are. Primed for basketball and an opportunity to see the Pelicans in the postseason. To do that, the team will have to be what they were during the exhibition schedule and then some, because, to quote the NBA itself, it’s a whole new game.