Looking up at an 0-3 record to start a campaign should inspire zero confidence, but I’m strangely upbeat about these New Orleans Pelicans following Saturday’s 96-89 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
This wild and whacky game featured just about everything one doesn’t want to see if winning is the desired outcome.
- 30 turnovers — tied a franchise record
- a 34.8 field goal percentage — the worst team FG% witnessed last season was 38.3%
- 9-40 shooting from three-point range, including a 3-23 performance from the starting backcourt
- a 21-7 fast break points disadvantage
- a 50-36 points in the paint disadvantage
- a 36-12 disparity in bench points
“You can’t win games like that,” Devonte’ Graham said. “We keep saying it every game, it’s kind of like beating a dead horse. We were in the game. That’s the craziest part about it. If you cut those turnovers in half, we could be up 15 points. We obviously keep saying the same thing, ‘We’ve gotta take care of the ball, gotta take care of the ball.’ Until then, we’ve got to live with our mistakes.”
Despite the super counterproductive play, the Pelicans trailed 91-87 with 1:22 remaining in regulation. Had a Nickeil Alexander-Walker three dropped at the 47.7 second mark, the deficit would have been one. It would have been anyone’s game, especially with Karl-Anthony Towns watching from the sidelines after fouling out. Instead, NAW missed, while D’Angelo Russell banked in a triple — which I’m sure he didn’t call — on the other end.
The result is a third straight loss to begin the campaign. Of course, that’s bad. One should be extremely wary of sugarcoating it. The reason for my optimism, though, New Orleans appeared to have discovered something in that second half and I think some of it will carry over.
It was reminiscent of the unrelenting fight in the Las Vegas summer league, and reportedly, of the Nashville informal workouts. We had seen glimpses of superb effort in the losses to Philly and Chicago, but it was sustained through most of the third frame. Plus, certain things like rotations and where the offense should come from started to click.
After a really deflating second quarter, the Pelicans put together a tremendous third — their best frame of the season — when it would have been easy to just lay down coming out of halftime.
While the Pelicans hung tough on the scoreboard in the first (28-27) thanks in large part to five made 3s, they posted eight turnovers. They followed that up with nine miscues in the second, but the offense completely withered up with just 14 points.
Frustrations were running so high that Jonas Valanciunas ripped a towel in half during an early second half timeout.
Then the momentum shifted spectacularly. New Orleans’ defense smothered Minnesota. From that timeout, the T-wolves managed to score only three field goals for the remaining 8:50 of the third. One of those buckets occurred with five seconds left off a Garrett Temple turnover.
“That’s the type of defense that we have to play,” Willie Green said. “We have to bring that level of physicality, that level of toughness. We have to rebound the ball at an extremely high level. That third quarter was amazing. It was awesome to see our guys go out and respond the way they did.”
A lot of players contributed to the suffocating defense, including Brandon Ingram, but a rookie stood front and center — and it wasn’t Trey Murphy III.
Herbert Jones’ box score doesn’t jump out at you — two points (1-6 FGs), eight rebounds, two assists, one block, three turnovers, but his contributions were a game-changer.
“His energy was unbelievable,” Graham said. “Getting those second chance points, rebounding — offensively and defensively, guarding their best player, switching onto guys, taking charges. His energy and presence was definitely felt.”
“He guards everybody we ask him to,” Green said. “He makes the right play. He’s gaining a lot of trust in that locker room with his teammates. It’s something we saw early in him. He’s taking advantage of his opportunity. Extremely proud of what he did tonight.”
If the Pelicans are going to find the win column, they’re going to need for the defense to carry the load, for at least until Zion Williamson returns.
Scoring buckets has been a problem since the start of preseason. While there are signs they’ll take a step forward soon — good 3PT% in first two games, Valanciunas’ comfort level growing, Ingram elevating his game — the defensive side of the ball is something the Pelicans can largely control by making multiple efforts, boxing out, pounding the glass and rotating hard.
Brandon Ingram led all scorers with 30 points, chipping in six rebounds, four assists and three 3s. He also had seven turnovers; however, I was throughly impressed with his effort throughout. He directed traffic. He used his length to tip balls to teammates as well as thwart the opponent defensively. He had several really important rebounds. He chased after his defensive assignment. He was ultra-focused in help situations, staying fully on top of the action.
It’s been just three games, but I think BI is ascending. He’s become so much more effective on the entire court.
Not to shortchange his contributions by mentioning him next, Jonas Valanciunas was incredible, posting a line of 20 points, 17 rebounds and three steals. He went a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line. His effort was responsible for fouling out KAT, Minnesota’s best player, with 6:36 left in regulation.
Alexander-Walker made only 6-24 shots but did finish with 14 points, 14 rebounds and two steals. Graham added 11 points.
Karl-Anthony Towns led the Wolves with 25 points, but it took him 20 shots. Anthony Edwards (19 points on 22 field goal attempts) and D’Angelo Russell (12 points on 14 FGA) were even less efficient.
The Wolves are a decently average team in my eyes. The Pelicans did everything they could to lose this game. And yet they very nearly won.
“To me, this is another step in the right direction,” Green said. “It’s not a victory, but I’m proud of what we went out and accomplished tonight.”
Couldn’t agree more. Can’t wait for Monday’s rematch — where the Pelicans won’t have a rest disadvantage.