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New Orleans Pelicans fail to match opponent’s intensity for second time inside Orlando bubble, lose 140-125 to Sacramento Kings

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Is the dream of the 2020 playoffs dead?

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The requisite playoff-like fire simply wasn’t there from the moment the ball was released up into the air.

The New Orleans Pelicans dropped a game that they badly needed to put into the win column against the Sacramento Kings, losing 140-125.

Today’s defeat moves the Pelicans into a two-way tie for 12th in the Western Conference standings, 2.5 games behind the Grizzlies for 8th and 2.0 games behind the Trail Blazers for 9th. Only four more games remain on the schedule to make up that ground while also needing to jump over the rest of the playoff-hungry pack (Spurs, Kings, Suns) for a spot in the play-in tournament.

Considering how New Orleans failed to match the intensity of the opponent from the jump — the second time that’s happened in four games, there is little belief that the 2020 postseason remains a realistic dream. For all the must-win talk since starting 0-2 in the Orlando bubble, it was thoroughly depressing to watch Sacramento score on their first six possessions and sprint out to a lead they would never relinquish.

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Bogdan Bogdanovic, who shot 1-15 against the Mavericks a few nights ago, burned the Pelicans’ defense to the ground singlehandedly by dropping in a game-high 35 points. New Orleans was slow in rotating out to all the Kings’ shooters and they paid for their mistakes seemingly as dearly as they did to the Clippers last week. Bogdanovic was in flamethrower mode early. By the time the first quarter had ended, he was standing with 19 points and five three-pointers, missing but one of eight shot attempts.

However, his backcourt running mate, De’Aaron Fox, also found plenty of success and finished his night with 30 points, 10 assists and three steals.

“They shot the ball extremely well,” Alvin Gentry said in postgame. “We were never into them [defensively], though. That was the tough thing, that we never got into them. If you give up basically a 50-point quarter, your defense has to adjust and do something.”

The Kings amassed 49 points within the game’s first 12 minutes. One knew the previously bubble-winless Kings were going to come out scrapping extremely hard for their lives, so the Pelicans lacking a sense of urgency to respond in similar fashion was the most frustrating part.

There was one moment in the game during the third quarter where the Pelicans looked ready to tie things up or possibly even seize the lead. They were in the midst of an 8-2 run and trailed 95-92. Following a rare miss by Bogdanovic with 4:57 left in the frame, Lonzo Ball had a potential transition opportunity, but he settled for a three-point shot. He missed and the Kings proceeded to close out the third on a 22-11 run. New Orleans never scared Sacramento in the fourth.

The theme was honestly quite evident. The Pelicans were consistently out-hustled. It felt like the Kings got to every 50/50 ball. New Orleans gave up 13 offensive rebounds while snagging five themselves. They forced eight Kings’ turnovers. They scored two fastbreak points in 48 minutes. Two!

Then the Pelicans often displayed a lack of focus as well, committing 17 turnovers. They had a great deal of success converting at the rim today — Zion Williamson immediately began 3-3 from inside the paint without much trouble and later we saw Lonzo add six easy points via three drives, but New Orleans failed to go aggressively to that well on a consistent basis. The Kings’ defense was really just as awful, offering no resistance, but it didn’t become the topic of conversation because it didn’t prove to be as large of a detriment.

But at the end of the day, New Orleans’ offense was fine throughout. They put up 125 points on the scoreboard. Zion Williamson tallied 24 points in 22 minutes, and Brandon Ingram added 24 points of his own. Jrue Holiday poured in 17 and JJ Redick scored 18 off the bench.

In my opinion, the Pelicans were often too flat in comparison to the Kings, not providing maximum energy nor that extra step, and it showed up specifically on the defensive end. But Gentry and his players didn’t see it the same way in postgame media.

“I think they came out blazing,” Jrue Holiday said. “I don’t think it was a lack of effort. I have to go back and watch it at some point and kind of figure it out. They were knocking down shots and making good plays. They were making some tough shots at first. We stayed in it for a little bit, but it just kind of got out of hand.”

“It’s just that when a team is shooting like that, there’s only so much you can do personally,” Zion Williamson said. “They were shooting the ball; they were hitting every shot. We’ve got to come together as a team, our coaches have to come together, and we’ve all got to just figure out how we’re going to adjust to it.”

“I don’t think it’s that we’re not playing hard, we’re just not into the ball defensively,” Gentry said. “I think we’re trying to compete and doing some [good] things, but you just can’t give up a 49-point quarter, and you can’t give up a 40-point quarter in the third quarter. Our defense has to be better from the standpoint of following game plans and then just the overall effort as far as you’re talking about. We’ve just got to be into the ball a lot more, not a little bit more, and we’ve got to be much more active defensively.”

Gentry contradicts himself here, no? It’s not that we’re not playing hard, but there needs to be more effort on the defensive side of the ball?

Few head coaches are comfortable throwing their players under the bus, especially such a young group of kids. And it’s probably even harder for Alvin, whose personality prefers to avoid confrontation. However, it must be said: the fight to do everything necessary wasn’t on display against the Kings.

The pursuit of the 2020 playoffs isn’t completely dead in the water yet. Four games remain, and as we’ve witnessed, New Orleans’ direct competition for the 8th and 9th seeds in the West has struggled to take care of a lot of business, too.

But if recent trends are a thing, the Pelicans are in big trouble. Someone is going to do enough. Just like today. Sacramento got whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. In a game the Pelicans needed to out-hustle, out-grind and out-work the Kings, they flopped.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.