A failure to close out games. We witnessed that script one too many times over the course of the regular season before the coronavirus shutdown, and sadly, nothing’s different more than four months later.
Each team traveling to the Orlando bubble was given eight seeding games to play on the schedule prior to the start of the playoffs, so amid a pack of four teams trailing the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference race by 3.5-4 games entering Thursday evening, the Pelicans could ill afford to throw away a single victory.
Of course, that’s precisely what they did in the opener.
The New Orleans Pelicans led 87-79 at the start of the fourth quarter, but they proceeded to get outscored 27-17 in the frame, dropping an important winnable game to the Utah Jazz, 106-104.
Zion Williamson was put on a hard minutes restriction, appearing in four small bursts that totaled a mere 15:10, but to add insult to injury, he physically looked great. On New Orleans very first offensive possession of the game, he caught the ball at the free throw line on a cut and maneuvered his way through two Utah defenders for an easy score and foul.
Does Williamson look like a player who needs to be treated with an overabundance of caution in the link above? The move he makes was decisive, quick and powerful, yet he spent less time on the court tonight than he did during his debut on January 22nd.
When he was coming off knee meniscus surgery and rehab — and looked the part of a player carrying a little extra weight and needing plenty more time in the gym, he spent 18 minutes and 18 seconds on the court.
How a clearly not-in-game-shape Zion wound up playing three more minutes and change than today’s version, a player who is just weeks removed from being lauded for his new, more chiseled look after spending the NBA downtime working extremely hard on his conditioning, doesn’t sit well with many. Myself included.
While there are a myriad of reasons that should be detailed to describe this defeat, which we’ll get to here in a minute, it’s troubling that New Orleans coaching staff wasn’t allowed to call Zion’s number more often.
“Of course, we wish we could have played him down the stretch, but you use the minutes that [were] given to us,” Alvin Gentry said in postgame. “That’s just the way it is. I mean, we weren’t going to stick him back out there. Our medical people said that we played him in the minutes that [were] allowed (for) us to play him.”
Think back to Zion’s debut and then his next game. The Pelicans dropped both contests. With Zion appearing in 4-5 minute stretches, the lineup’s rhythm was clearly affected. The same thing happened tonight. New Orleans was a -16 in Williamson’s 15 minutes. Why did the powers that be make the same mistake twice, especially with every game so crucial now as the playoffs are on the line?
To add further confusion to the matter, when Williamson was asked about the minute’s restriction, he brushed off the idea that his lack of playing time was for precautionary reasons.
“They weren’t holding me back,” Zion said to postgame media. “Yeah, I did want to be out there, but we’re just working my way back into my flow. That’s all it is.”
Huh? Gentry directly referred to a hard minutes cap, but Zion told us that he didn’t want to hurt the team more than help them?
Full quote from Zion: "It's not even just conditioning; it's just getting my flow to the game back. This is the NBA, this is the best players in the world; and you want to feel comfortable. I don't want to hurt my team more than I helped them in a sense, if you understand me." https://t.co/4m4dM0hwBM— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) July 31, 2020
Why is there a disconnect? The focal point should be on the 48 minutes of action that took place for the first time since March 8th, but it’s difficult to look past how Zion’s night unfolded, both on and off the court.
That’s a shame, really, because New Orleans did a lot of things well. After they quickly fell behind 19-8 in the first quarter, the Pelicans went on to magnificently turn things around.
Following a timeout, Brandon Ingram showed why he’s a favorite for the Most Improved Player Award, scoring seven straight points. Then JJ Redick took a turn, contributing nine points to New Orleans’ total. And during this stretch, Jrue Holiday was playing beautifully on both ends of the floor.
From the 6:55 mark of the first quarter to 1:46 in the second, the Pelicans scored 27 more points than the Jazz. The momentum appeared unstoppable. But as quickly as they found the magic, it vanished in the second half.
In his postgame comments, Gentry placed the greatest blame on turnovers. However, I can’t entirely agree. While the Pelicans went on to commit 11 turnovers, the Jazz had 10 in those final 24 minutes of the game.
No, the bigger problems were that the shooting efficiency dried up and easy points were nowhere to be found. The Pelicans were destroyed 34-16 in points-in-the-paint after intermission. New Orleans managed to only make 34.9% of their shots from the field. Utah, 56.4%. Although New Orleans wound up with four more shot attempts in the 2nd half, the Jazz outscored the Pelicans 58-44.
You know the old adage, right? It’s a make or miss league.
Lonzo Ball struggled to find the center of the iron all night, making only two of 13 shots. After a great first half, Ingram knocked down only one of nine shots in the second. Outside of Holiday and Redick making four baskets apiece after halftime, the next highest total was Zion’s two, in a mere 8:35 of playing time.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Jordan Clarkson combined to knock down 14 of 21 shot attempts.
Ingram was the high man for the Pelicans, with 23 points and eight rebounds, Redick poured in 21 points and three three-pointers off the bench, and Holiday went for 20 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals, but six turnovers.
The Jazz were led by Clarkson’s 23 points off the bench, with Mike Conley Jr. and Mitchell both scoring 20 apiece.
New Orleans lost their flow, lost their 25th game of the season in crunch time and may have lost their mojo for the rest of the Orlando restart. This isn’t to say the sky is falling, but now whether rightly and wrongly, all eyes will be narrowly focused on Zion Williamson. How many games will it take for him to find his flow?