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Pelicans fail to execute in final seconds, lose 129-125 to Bucks

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Chalk up another teaching moment for the young squad

New Orleans Pelicans v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Welp, this conclusion should feel all too familiar for fans — a tough loss ending in such underwhelming fashion.

Before the final buzzer sounded in Milwaukee, awarding the Bucks a 129-125 victory over the Pelicans, New Orleans was suddenly presented a window of opportunity with a tick under 15 seconds left in regulation and trailing by three points.

After calling a second timeout on the same possession, Khris Middleton caught an inbounds pass in traffic near the out of bounds and half court lines, but he was immediately stripped of the ball by Zion Williamson. The Pelicans raced down the court — with plenty of time to launch a game-tying three-point attempt — yet they failed to get up a single shot.

Lonzo Ball, who had made 6 of 10 three-point attempts to that point, was the first to ignore a solid open look after catching a pass from Josh Hart. Had Zo been set and ready to shoot immediately upon the catch, I don’t think Brook Lopez gets there in time to effectively change the attempt. Instead, Ball hot-potatoed a pass to Ingram at the top of the key, and the 2019 All-Star also decided to not shoot the basketball quickly and decisively from behind the arc. With a fast-incoming Giannis Antetokounmpo bounding his way, Ingram paused for a moment and then inexplicably drove into the lane, bowling over Donte DiVincenzo in the process and getting called for a charging offensive foul.

This loss should remind you some, or maybe a lot, of the recent defeat the Pelicans suffered inside the Smoothie King Center to the Portland Trail Blazers. Eight days ago, New Orleans had a chance to tie or take the lead with 16.5 seconds left in regulation. While they did get a couple of shot attempts up, they were far from desirable looks. The action felt overly chaotic and the decision-making just wasn’t good — a lot like the final 14.7 seconds to close out tonight’s contest against the Bucks.

Stan Van Gundy remarked to postgame media that the Pelicans passed on two good shooting opportunities that could have tied the game. This team and its fans have to settle for another teaching moment.

It’s a shame the execution wasn’t sharper when the situation required it, but winning in the NBA is tough for unproven squads. Zion, B.I. and Lonzo have not yet learned how to best function in game-deciding moments, trusting their individual abilities when the time calls for it. That growth sometimes can come from instant success, but more often than not, disappointing experiences must be traversed first before improvement takes place.

“We’re all standing there watching and it’s easy to say that should have happened — and he will tell you that should have happened, but it’s a little tougher when you’re out there in real time against NBA players flying around and stuff,” Van Gundy said of Lonzo Ball’s decision to pass on taking the last-second shot. “I’m not going to fault him on that. He’s playing outstanding basketball. We wouldn’t have had a shot in this game if it wasn’t for him. Just a mistake, and hopefully, we learn from it.”

I completely agree. Williamson (34 points, eight rebounds, six assists), Ingram (23 points, four rebounds, two assists) and Ball (20 points, eight assists, six threes) all had a positive impact. What’s more lamentable, at least from my perspective, was another subpar effort by the New Orleans defense and an eerily quiet referee whistle.

Williamson and Ingram average over 13 free throw attempts combined per game on the season. Tonight they finished with six, but it wasn’t due to a lack of trying to get to the charity stripe. Several times the fouls were apparent, yet the Pelicans’ stars were forced to move on in disgust. Van Gundy made a note of this afterwards, particularly in Zion’s case.

New Orleans is one of the highest scoring teams in the league when it comes to points in the paint. Ditto from the free throw line. All the forays into the paint, though, netted 58 points tonight but only 14 free throw attempts. It’s astounding to see the Milwaukee Bucks were whistled for zero personal fouls in a physical game where the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t stop attacking.

It’s abundantly clear that the respect hasn’t been earned yet, but once more, it’s another shining example of the youthfulness of this core. Right or wrong, the Pelicans are in the process of taking their lumps. The hope is they emerge a better team in time.

That said, Giannis Antetokounmpo (38 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and Khris Middleton (31 points, seven rebounds, six assists) were probably the two most dominant figures in the game. The Bucks very much deserved the win. They did enough, shooting 54.2% from the field and 41.9% from the three-point line. The Pelicans didn’t slow them down nearly enough.

To beat the best, you’ve got to be at your best. Last Sunday’s win over the Celtics showed there’s hope on the horizon, but consistency still eludes New Orleans. Hopefully one day soon, the Pelicans will make a habit of cashing in these valuable teaching moments they’ve accumulated on the season into many more victories, proving Van Gundy’s hunch right that a really good team lies underneath.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcheror Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.