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Nickeil, Trey shine but Pelicans lose 117-114 to Timberwolves in preseason opener

It was a tale of two halves

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Imagine that, they’re not a finished product.

The New Orleans Pelicans fell 117-114 to the Minnesota Timberwolves as Trey Murphy III’s 3-point shot attempt was blocked with 1.3 seconds left in regulation. However, the final margin doesn’t adequately depict how the events unfolded in the first preseason game of 2021-22.

From the standpoint of winning, the first half was a horror show. The Pelicans couldn’t knock down shots from 3-point range, missing 17 of 21 attempts. Defensively, the Pels did little to slow down Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who combined for 42 of the Wolves’ 65 first half points. But the biggest killer were the 15 turnovers, leading directly to 20 points for the Wolves.

“Our turnovers,” Willie Green said. “Careless turnovers. We had 15 turnovers in the first half, and in the second half, we only had six. We take care of the basketball; we play with pace; we play with force. You’ve seen we can get any shot we want, but against any NBA team, 21 turnovers, 31 points off of our turnovers. It’s tough to regain all that.”

The only real positives in the first half were Naji Marshall’s energy, Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s offensive talents — the oft-talked about firework displays in Nashville and training camp appear 100% true — and the team being aggressive enough early to be able to live on the free throw line while shots from the field weren’t dropping.

Although KAT didn’t receive any playing time in the second half, New Orleans deserves credit for their offense roaring to life as they outscored Minnesota 69-52. And the man who breathed the most fire was the 17th pick of the 2021 NBA Draft.

Though he wasn’t able to get his game-tying three off cleanly just before the final buzzer, Murphy (21 points, six rebounds, six 3-pointers) might have been the biggest revelation despite Alexander-Walker scoring efficiently from all parts of the floor. Trey hit two of four 3-pointers in the first half but was much deadlier after halftime in making four of six.

On a night the rest of the Pelicans really struggled from deep (6-27), Trey’s 6-10 shooting display stands out. It’s going to be difficult for Green to keep the rookie’s shooting prowess off the floor, especially if the starters are not adequately keeping the floor spaced for Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.

“He looked good,” Green said. “He was a little uncomfortable in the first half but got it going in the second half and knocked down shots. Teammates were looking for him, and that’s what we need him to do. He’s a floor-spacer. He knows how to play; he was in the right spots the majority of the time in the second half. I like what I saw from him. Good energy. Once again, he knows how to play.”

As for Nickeil (22 points, three assists, two steals, two 3s), he was the first substitution off the bench for Green and made his presence immediately known. He dished an assist to Josh Hart for the Pels’ first made triple right away and then scored buckets on the next two possessions, including this beauty:

If Green keeps him as a reserve, Nickeil could prove valuable in a Manu Ginobili-like role. The starters tonight could have used his exploits from the jump, no doubt, but once everyone is healthy, you have to believe Ingram and Zion are going to dominate touches — thereby limiting NAW’s opportunities.

Either way, Nickeil appears to be on the precipice of breakout third campaign.

Ingram was the only other Pelican to score in double figures (14 points). He didn’t find his jumper until the second half, but it did appear he was overly trying to get others involved early. The cohesion wasn’t there though, as evidenced by two quick turnovers.

Devonte’ Graham finished with nine points and two 3s, Kira Lewis Jr. had nine points, five rebounds and two assists, and Herbert Jones notched seven points, six rebounds and two blocks.

Jones was the most impressive of the group, however, he was pressed into center duty after Jaxson Hayes (eight points, five rebounds, two blocks) sprained his left ankle towards the end of the third quarter. Hopefully, he won’t miss much time, but it did appear he was in serious pain, needing to be helped off the floor and to the locker room.

The Pelicans suffered greatly from not having Jonas Valanciunas (right thumb sprain) or Zion Williamson (broken right foot) out on the floor. So much so, it was difficult to point to multiple positives by either of their replacements in the starting lineup (Garrett Temple and Willy Hernangomez).

While a number of the guys who played missed a number of lay-ins that normally drop, the Pelicans seemed to settle for far too many outside shots while cold in the game’s first 24 minutes. However, as mentioned at the outset, the real killer were the live-ball turnovers. One can’t give up 19 transition points in a single half.

Fortunately, this game doesn’t count in the standings. The hope should be it proves a good learning experience. Three more exhibition games are in store before the regular season opener on Oct. 20.

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.