The New Orleans Pelicans were back on the court Wednesday night for a date with the Los Angeles Clippers. This was technically the second game of the team’s 7-game road trip, but Monday’s contest against the Dallas Mavericks was postponed due to Covid-19-related and contact-tracing issues.
Despite not playing since last Friday, the Pelicans were without several key players. Forward Zion Williamson missed the game after an inconclusive Covid-19 test.
“He had inconclusive results and the timing became a factor,” Stan Van Gundy said in pregame media. “He’s not with us here at the game tonight. He’s back in his hotel room. We’ll know more as further results come back.”
New Orleans was also without guards Eric Bledsoe (Right Eye Irritation) and Lonzo Ball (Bilateral Knee Tendinopathy). Neither player is expected to miss extended time, but their absences forced the Pelicans head coach to rework his lineups, starting Josh Hart, Sindarius Thornwell, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker alongside the two regulars in Brandon Ingram and Steven Adams.
Down three starters, no one should reasonably expect the Pelicans to beat one of the NBA’s elite on the road; however, they did make the game interesting down the stretch. Perhaps more importantly, this opportunity gave several young players a chance to shine, and well, the kids did more than alright.
New Orleans got off to its usual strong start in the initial frame. Alexander-Walker led all first quarter scorers with nine points on 4 of 5 shooting, but let’s get right to it: NAW was the star of the game which featured some pretty big names. He led all scorers with 37 points, hitting 15 of his 23 shots including 5 of 8 from three-point range.
Alexander-Walker had his full bag on display, peppering the Clippers with shots from three, mid-range as well as several impressive finishes around the rim.
In addition to his early scoring, Alexander-Walker was also aggressive defensively and did not shrink in the moment when he was switched onto Clipper stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. In fact, the Pelicans were solid defensively as a whole to start the game.
Offensively New Orleans shot 52.2% from the field in the first quarter; however, they tallied only three assists. In other words, there was a lot of shot-making rather than ball movement, but that was foreseeable given all the scratches to the lineup.
New Orleans ended the first quarter in a tie with the Clippers, 28-28.
After a strong opening frame, the defense began to slip in the second quarter. George lit up the Pelicans for 13 points, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. To make matters worse, the offense completely stagnated, scoring only 15 points in the quarter.
“It wasn’t just that we didn’t make buckets, we couldn’t stop them from making any buckets,” Van Gundy said after the game. “They dominated us at both ends in that quarter. The other three quarters, we played good basketball, but the one quarter was bad enough to turn the game.”
In fact, the second was the only quarter the Pelicans lost the entire game. The Clippers outscored the Pelicans 33-15, closing on a 21-4 scoring run before halftime.
As bad as the second quarter went, the Pelicans bounced back in the third behind another strong effort from Nickeil Alexander-Walker. His 15 points led all scorers in the frame by a wide margin. The next closest player on either team was Brandon Ingram, who scored seven points en route to a 22-point, 6-rebound, 4-assist night.
The story of the third, though, was the stingy defense. The Pelicans held the Clippers to 38.9% shooting from the field. New Orleans limited points in the paint and forced the Clippers into several mid-range jumpers, most of which missed the mark.
In recent games, we’ve seen the Pelicans fall apart down the stretch and if there was a night where you might expect that, it would be on a night where New Orleans was missing three starters. Instead, the group fought to stay in the game, cutting the Clippers lead to as little as four points on an Ingram layup with 8:49 left in the fourth quarter.
To play that song one more time, NAW led the Pelicans with 11 points in the final frame, BI added six and JJ Redick contributed seven points in a strong offensive push that saw New Orleans outscore Los Angeles 35-28.
Unfortunately, Kawhi Leonard did what all great players do: show up in the fourth of a tight game and hold off the surging opponent. He paced the scorers with 12 points and hit several tough shots, including including two late three-pointers to destroy New Orleans’ comeback hopes.
While the Pelicans allowed the Clippers to shoot 52.9% in the fourth quarter, their defensive effort was better than that figure might indicate. L.A. was just outclassed New Orleans, with their stars hitting contested shots to put the Pelicans away and close out their 111-106 victory.
In addition to NAW’s career-best night, Kira Lewis Jr. showed that he belongs on an NBA floor, His first meaningful minutes were not too big of a stage and he contributed solid production in 16 minutes off the bench. He scored 10 points, grabbed two rebounds and hit 2 of 3 attempts from behind the 3-point arc. Most importantly for a rookie guard, he had only one turnover and even drew a couple free throw attempts.
“Just a little (butterflies) knowing I’m going to get in on national tv against a real good team, but once I ran up and down the court for the first two times, the butterflies went away and it was just doing what I’ve done all my life — playing basketball,” Lewis told reporters in postgame.
Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy was effusive in his praise of Lewis after the game: “This guy’s 19 years old and playing the point in our league. It’s his first shot of doing it and he’s playing against the Clippers with guys like Pat Beverley. I think it’s a damn good first start there.”
Defensively, Lewis held his own. He was mostly in good positions, and was not the easy target that many rookies point guards wind up being. It was also obvious that he is a very good shooter and has the confidence to take the shots when open.
It’s only one game, but New Orleans should feel good about their future in the backcourt. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. showed quite a bit of mettle against top-end talent.