The New Orleans Pelicans were back in action tonight facing the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second time this season. In the first matchup, New Orleans earned a 113-80 road victory in blowout fashion. The division rivals swapped venues for Wednesday night’s game in the Smoothie King Center. New Orleans was no doubt looking to bounce back from Monday night’s embarrassing fourth quarter collapse against the Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately for Pels fans, the team disintegrated after another promising start, eventually losing to the Thunder 111-110.
New Orleans opened the game with good offensive energy and led for most of the first quarter behind strong performances from their two best players. Zion Williamson was aggressive to start the game and for good reason. He smartly punished the smaller Darius Bazley in the lane, scoring four buckets on five tries for eight points.
All-Star forward Brandon Ingram continued his stellar play with eight points, five rebounds and three assists in the opening frame. We’ve known Ingram can score for sometime now, but he continues to impress with his playmaking ability, hitting Zion and Steven Adams for a couple of easy scores.
New Orleans finished the first quarter with a 34-26 lead, with every starter scoring at least seven points.
Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy often cites playing solid defense and limiting turnovers as the keys to winning NBA basketball games. His players did the exact opposite in both the second and third quarters. New Orleans coughed up 12 turnovers during that time frame, leading to 21 points off turnovers and 15 point fast break points for OKC. For the game, the Pelicans committed 15 turnovers, gifting the Thunder a whopping 27 fast break points.
“The bottom line is we didn’t play any defense,” said a visibly upset Stan Van Gundy to the media in the post game press conference. “You give up 27 fast-break points to a team that came in averaging seven and a half fast-break points, we don’t need to talk about anything else. That becomes the problem. It’s all about the last play, the missed shots, and the offense. That bullshit has been going on too long with this group. Dig in, and play the game defensively. We scored 110 points. If you can’t win scoring 110 points, there’s something wrong.”
Despite all those turnovers, New Orleans kept pace with OKC in the second quarter, narrowly losing 28-25 after the starters came in to close out the first half strongly. They took a 59-54 lead into halftime. Many felt the hiccup had come and gone as the Pelicans have had their biggest issues in second quarters on the young season. Unfortunately, the sloppy play was an omen of what was to come in the third.
It didn’t help matters that reserve guard JJ Redick left the game with a knee injury at the 9:13 mark of the second quarter.
Redick will not return to tonight’s game.— Pelicans PR (@PelicansPR) January 7, 2021
Head coach Stan Van Gundy had no update on Redick’s status after the game. Regardless, the Pelicans may have not lost much as his shooting struggles seemed likely to continue, with the veteran guard going 1-4 from the field with just two points — on a midrange prayer while he was trying to draw a foul — before exiting the contest.
New Orleans suffered numerous defensive breakdowns in the third quarter, allowing forward Darius Bazley to burn them for 15 points. Bazley wasn’t the only Thunder to feast on the Pelicans as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 10 points to go with three assists in the frame.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans offense grinded to a painful halt after halftime — New Orleans scored only 19 points in the third quarter. The Thunder must have decided to force the Pelicans to beat them from the outside as OKC packed the paint, essentially daring the Pelicans perimeter players into jump shot after jump shot.
The strategy worked.
New Orleans missed all seven three-point attempts and Lonzo Ball went 0-5 with three turnovers in the frame.
Honestly, it’s shocking to see the Ingram-Adams-Lonzo trio get outscored by 19 points in the boxscore, but reflecting back on the game, the Thunder had all the easy looks while the Pelicans did not. A 10-0 OKC advantage in fast break points kind of tells the story, no?
Anyways, the Pelicans were trailing 88-78 on the scoreboard after three and it appeared the game was all but over.
A couple of comebacks but fall short at the end once more
New Orleans started to turn things around immediately at the start of the fourth quarter. They raced out on a 6-0 run to force a quick timeout from the Thunder. The Pelicans defensive intensity was much improved and the guards were much more aggressive driving into the paint rather than settling for jump shots. However, as soon as New Orleans closed the deficit to 88-87, Mike Muscala went to work.
Three straight Thunder possessions resulted in three made triples for Muscala. In the blink of an eye, OKC had established another double-digit lead. Credit the Pelicans though, they didn’t quit.
Following a silky smooth jumper from Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans actually grabbed a 108-106 lead with 57.4 seconds remaining. In that one shining moment, it appeared New Orleans might be able to steal a game they truly did not deserve to win.
The celebration was short-lived, however, as on the very next possession Lonzo Ball fouled OKC guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander behind the three-point line. Shai hit all three free throws to give OKC a 109-108 lead.
Zion Williamson came down and hit the Pelicans’ final shot of the game, again giving New Orleans a slim advantage lead, but another Lonzo Ball foul allowed the Thunder to regain the lead for good. This time the infraction came against George Hill in the paint and he converted both attempts from the free throw line to give OKC a 111-110 advantage.
New Orleans did have a chance to win at the final buzzer, but the Thunder blitzed Brandon Ingram and forced him to give up the ball. The rock found Alexander-Walker; however, he rimmed out an open three-point attempt.
As head coach Stan Van Gundy put it after the game, “We just weren’t good enough guys, defensively. I mean we get a wide open shot at the end, but the basketball gods said, you know what, no way. Not with the effort you guys put in tonight. you don’t deserve to win.”
Despite the last-second miss, Nickeil Alexander-Walker was a bright spot in the game. He scored seven points in the near pivotal fourth quarter and earned three free throws. Alexander-Walker finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds and one assist. In addition, the young guard was also very active defensively, forcing two turnovers and just generally being in the right place most of the time.
Redick’s second quarter injury forced Van Gundy to play Alexander-Walker extended minutes and overall he was rewarded with solid play. If NAW can maintain this level of play, he may soon become a mainstay in the rotation. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could eventually challenge the struggling Redick for additional minutes in the rotation.
Outside of Alexander-Walker, Zion and Adams were rock solid in the final frame, making five shots on six attempts. As for the rest of the gang, they were pretty sloppy. Following the first quarter, Ball couldn’t make anything, but he continued to shoot frequently. Defensively, Zo wasn’t very good either. It was quite the surprise to see Ingram finish with just two shot attempts in the entire fourth quarter considering how often he had been taking matters into his own hand in the previous seven games.
Zion Williamson led all scorers with 29 points and also added six rebounds and three steals. Brandon Ingram dropped a line of 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Steven Adams finished with the first double-double of his career, but in postgame, he wasn’t too interested in talking about that accomplishment considering it came in a loss.
And that's the first career triple-double for Steven Adams.— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) January 7, 2021
Still 1:22 left to play here.
New Orleans will take the court again on Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets. The contest will be the final game of the four-game home stand. After that, comes a seven-game road trip that could define the first half of this season.