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NBA Preview: Pelicans’ defense hopes to stymie Trae Young’s Hawks

Herbert Jones is quickly making a name for himself. But when a bucket is needed, Brandon Ingram’s the guy.

Orlando Magic v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans will look to build off Monday’s convincing 107-98 victory over the Timberwolves with a win over the Atlanta Hawks tonight. It won’t be an easy task though, this Trae Young-led opponent made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

If things are to go well for the home team, expect for the staunch defense witnessed over the last eight quarters (93.3 defensive rating) to play an integral part.

The starting lineup, in particular, is showing signs of forging a defensive-minded identity. The Devonte’ Graham-Nickel Alexander-Walker-Brandon Ingram-Herbert Jones-Jonas Valanciunas grouping has turned in a 93.0 defensive rating in 52 minutes on the season.

For comparison, the best defense overall in the NBA can be found in Miami, with the Heat posting a 92.6 defensive rating.

Again, it’s early, but New Orleans has met the eye-test. And to the surprise of many, leading the way has been a rookie out of Alabama. Jones was expected to be a great defender in time, but he’s transitioned extremely well to the pros.

“I mean, it’s just kind of what we do every day,” Jones said in reference to coming up with the stop on Karl-Anthony Towns. “Just make it tough on guys. {KAT’s} a super talented guy so I just tried to make it super tough on him.”

While the defense has found its stride, the offense remains a work in progress. Through four games, the Pelicans have the third-worst offensive rating (99.3). They have the worst turnover percentage (19.9%) and the sixth-worst true shooting percentage (52.3%). That’s a frightening combination.

Although four players (Ingram, Valanciunas, Graham and Alexander-Walker) are averaging over 17 points per game, the next highest scorer is Trey Murphy III, at just 5.8 PPG. That’s a steep drop-off and it distinctly displays the struggles of the entire reserve unit. It’s the reason why Willie Green has been riding several of his starters hard.

No team is averaging fewer bench points (18.8) in the league. A 36.4 FG% (29th), 9.0 three-point attempts (27th), 3.0 free throw attempts (28th), and 7.4 turnovers (28th) outline the troubles.

Until there’s some internal improvement, or reinforcements arrive in the form of either Zion Williamson or Josh Hart, the game plan seems rather straightforward. Rely on team’s defense and look for points from the top four guys. When a bucket is imperative, get the ball to Ingram.

“I think we would have fallen into that anyway, but I did talk to him before he checked back into the game,” Green said yesterday after practice. “I told him, ‘Brandon, you’ve got to get the ball into your hands down the stretch and you’ve just got to make plays for us.’ Sometimes that’s scoring, sometimes that’s plays for teammates, getting to the free throw line. But we were happy with the results of him scoring four straight times and us winning the game.”

Those four buckets sealed the game, but perhaps we should have expected it. In the previous three games, Ingram had converted 11 of 15 field goal attempts, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. Four games in, he’s shooting a sublime 71.4% from the field and 60% from deep.

Some additional fire balls from Ingram will probably be required to get past Atlanta. They’re a solid all-around team, currently possessing a top 10 offense and defense. They’re fantastic on the defensive glass — the Pelicans aren’t likely to rack up as many 2nd chance points as they did against the T-Wolves — and they don’t beat themselves (third-lowest turnover percentage at 12.5%).

After Young (25.0 PPG, 10.0 AST), there’s balanced scoring throughout Nate McMillan’s rotations. This despite Danilo Gallinari yet to make his 2021-22 debut. Seven other Hawks are averaging at least 8.0 points per game, with Cam Reddish’s 18.7 PPG off the bench inflicting the most damage.

To get past Atlanta, New Orleans is likely going to have to put together their best game of the season. Not only will the defense have to shine, the offense must execute at a high level. It shouldn’t be considered probable, but it is possible. Hey, at least this new group of Pelicans has shown they battle like hell and refuse to quit.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (1-3) vs Atlanta Hawks (2-1)

When: October 27, 2021, 6:30 pm

Where to watch: ESPN

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

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.