While the defense wasn’t quite on point as in the previous three games, the frigid offense never presented a true opportunity for victory (42.9 FG%, 26.5 3PT%, 64 FT%). Brandon Ingram hit only 9 of 22 shots. Devonte’ Graham (4-16) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (5-16) struggled even more so. Both teams shot 25 free throws apiece, but the Kings made eight more from the line — in a four-point game.
“I didn’t think in the first half we ran a lot of offense,” Willie Green said in postgame. “I thought the ball was sticking. We took some extremely difficult shots, and when we do that, it fuels their transition opportunities. We have to do better at running stuff, setting screens, and creating for each other. We had six assists at halftime. I talked to the team about it. We came out and did a better job; had 12 in the second half.”
As it’s become a staple on the young season, though, the team refused to quit. Moral victories mean nothing in the standings, especially for a franchise known more for losing than winning, but in year’s past, this level of consistent fight hasn’t been evident. That’s why these close losses of late really sting.
With 1:20 left in regulation, the Pelicans were trailing 107-95. The game realistically felt over — seemingly half the crowd had already left or had just gotten up from their seats and were walking to the exit doors. Then New Orleans scored on three straight possessions.
Graham hit two threes and Ingram, one, to make it a one-possession game at 107-104. Unfortunately, the Kings failed to miss a free throw the rest of the way and New Orleans stopped making baskets.
Jonas Valanciunas led all scorers with 24 points, adding 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocks as well. Ingram finished with a line of 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. Graham chipped in 16 points, and Herbert Jones cracked double-digits for the first time in his career. The rookie scored 12 points in a variety of ways: we witnessed a long corner jumper, a baby hook shot off a smart drive and he was only one of two Pelicans to go perfect from the free throw line.
Jones is growing up before our very eyes, but at the end of the day, another L was added to the loss column. That’s a shame because the Pelicans turned the ball over a mere ten times and gave up only three offensive rebounds. They also held the Kings, the third-best team in transition entering tonight, to just eight fast break points — all of them coming in the first quarter.
“We make it a point to really push it on a make or a miss, but for us, the key thing is getting deflections and rebounds because then we’re really tough to stop,” Kings head coach Luke Walton said in pregame. “With the guards we have, Harrison (Barnes) can bring it. We got bigs who can get out and run. It’s a big emphasis for us going into every game and we’re doing an ok job at it so far, but we need to be even better.”
The Pelicans did a great job of throwing a monkey wrench into that Kings’ game plan. In addition to beating them in transition (13-8) and on the glass (49-45), they only gave up four steals to Sacramento.
New Orleans also held De’Aaron Fox — noted Pelicans killer last season — to 23 points on 21 shots. Harrison Barnes, who entered the contest averaging nearly 27 points per game, was held to 18.
If we’re pointing fingers, the first quarter was a porous defensive effort as was the fourth. However, just an average night offensively would have made amends. Instead, three of the top four New Orleans scorers struggled. Trey Murphy III failed to get a shot attempt in the first half. The Kings’ defense went through a stretch where they dared Jaxson Hayes to beat them from the outside — he missed all three open jumpers.
A potential turning point in the game occurred late in the third. The Pelicans were in the midst of a 24-10 run out of halftime, but they strung too many misses from the free throw line together and missed several momentum-changing threes. They were good looks but failed to go in.
Following Murphy’s lone 3-pointer, he had another two attempts almost immediately after, the latter of which would have given the Pelicans a 75-72 lead — but the shot missed. That was promptly followed by Murphy fouling Buddy Hield on a 3-ball attempt out of a timeout. The play was ruled a flagrant foul, Hield made all three from the line and then the Kings added another bucket. So, instead of something closer to a three-point lead, the Pelicans trailed 77-72 after three quarters.
The Pelicans are going to have to figure out a way to get over that hump.
Up next, the Pelicans play Saturday night, welcoming the New York Knicks on the second night of a back to back. Can they muster another stellar effort and salvage the three-game home stand with a victory? Let’s hope so because a four-game road trip out West follows and no one wants to contemplate something akin to a 1-10 start to the season.