With 5:35 minutes remaining in tonight’s game against the Kings, the Pelicans had only scored four points. In that time, Sacramento scored 14 points of their own, increasing their lead to 15 and ensuring that New Orleans wouldn’t have time to claw back into it. The Kings would walk away with a 112-99 victory.
It is a shame, too, because once again, a Pels team without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram was on the cusp of stealing a game on the road. Instead, Willie Green and company find themselves on a 5-game losing streak and a league-worst 1-8 record.
The Kings stayed ahead for so much of this game not because one player was unstoppable, but because the Pelicans were unable to stop a single player. Seven players scored in double digits, and because Luke Walton was rolling with an 8-man rotation (Tristan Thompson replaced Richaun Holmes after Holmes was ejected early in the third quarter), that meant just about everybody got their shots in on the shoddy Pels defense.
Jonas Valančiūnas was the anchor for a Pelicans attack that was just about as balanced, but not efficient enough to keep pace with any of Harrison Barnes (23 points), De’Aaron Fox (19 points) and Tyler Haliburton (18 points), the game’s top three scorers.
Valančiūnas now has a double-double in eight of his first nine games as a Pelican, but his inability to slow even second-string bigs is emerging as a real problem. Entering tonight, FiveThirtyEight had calculated the Lithuanian center’s defensive impact to be -5.5 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark on the team. By no means is this a benchable infraction, especially considering how starved for offense this team has been sans-Zion and Ingram, but New Orleans is going to be in trouble if duos like Richaun Holmes and Alex Len (who are fine, and some may even say good players, but still!) combined for 24 points on 18 shots.
Kira Lewis Jr. hasn’t yet been the spark plug that some were expecting him to be in his sophomore season, but his play tonight was a step in the right direction. He hit multiple threes for the first time this season (2-3) en route to a very modest early season-high of 14 points, but his (and the Pelicans’) most electric play came in the final minute of the third quarter:
The slam was just his second of the season and sixth of his career, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the ferocity of that finish (though the reactions of Joel Meyers and Antonio Daniels were definitely clues). These two points were the last of the 35 the Pelicans scored in a third quarter that saw them make 12 of their first 15 shots, but the offense screeched to a halt immediately afterwards. Twelve points in the fourth quarter will almost never be enough.
One of the few offensive bright spots in the first half was Devonte’ Graham, who started 5-8 from the field. It’s just plain bizarre that he took just two shots in the second half and scored his only two points from the free throw line. Even with a couple of bad shooting nights in tow, FiveThirtyEight still ranks the former Hornet as far and away the most productive offensive player on the team (+5.1 points per 100 possessions). Metrics like RAPTOR aren’t necessary, though, to tell that a team so desperate for points (they ranked 24th in Offensive Rating entering tonight) needs to ensure their best scorers have a chance to do their job.
Of note in deeper rotation matters tonight was that Jaxson Hayes was supplanted by Willy Hernangomez for the rest of the game after four unproductive minutes from Hayes. Hernangomez racked up a quick eight points and two rebounds in 11 minutes. Even when fully healthy, the Pelicans frontcourt depth could be an issue if neither of these centers can consistently contribute from the second unit.
The most painful part of this loss to Sacramento is that this contest was likely going to be the easiest game to win on an otherwise brutal road trip that’s already included Phoenix and will next feature stops in Golden State and Dallas. No game is a gimme when a team is this shorthanded, so a stolen victory here and there is going to have to suffice.
The Pelicans will next have a chance to do just that on Guy Fawkes Day, this Friday against the Warriors on national television. Brandon Ingram may be back in time to face off against Steph Curry, but the rest of the season will be a test of whether the Pels will have time to climb back from this deep early season hole that they have once again dug for themselves.