Entering tonight's contest against the Jazz, shutting down a historically-great perimeter offense was high on the Pelicans’ agenda. After allowing 21 and 17 made threes in their previous bouts with Utah (both losses), the Pelicans once again allowed 17 makes on 43 shots (39.5%).
And yet, it was New Orleans who left the Smoothie King Center with the 129-124 win against a team that had won 23 of their last 26 games.
If the Pelicans were intimidated by the stalwart interior defense of Rudy Gobert and company, it didn't show. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram teamed up to wreak havoc inside the arc, combining for 52 points (26 each) on 37 shots. Extreme emphasis on inside the arc is warranted, especially for Ingram. This was the first game of the season (and his first since November 2, 2019, when he played just 13 minutes) that he opted not to attempt a three-point shot.
Ingram came out of the gates ready to roll, but the adrenaline may have gotten the best of him at first. He was taking and making shots in a hurry, but his attempts to create offense for others were misguided and led to some early turnovers that Utah was all too happy to take advantage of. As the game wore on, though, he was able to get the edge more often than not against Joe Ingles, his primary defender, and create enough space for good shots to keep on coming.
The Jazz are not a team to let a couple of hot hands take them down though. New Orleans had pushed their lead to 14 with 3:54 left in the 4th after Lonzo Ball hit his team-high third three pointer, but Utah answered with a 16-3 run that cut the lead to one with just under a minute remaining.
Out of a timeout, the ball was back in Ingram's hands, but the resulting shot was a dud. Zion and company scampering across and around the court throughout the game had opened up driving lanes left and right, but this stagnant possession ended with a contested jumper that gave Donovan Mitchell a chance to steal one in Smoothie King. Fortunately, Mitchell, who finished just 7-21 from the field, clanged a layup that Rudy Gobert failed to put back before sending Williamson to the line on an over-the-back foul. Two made free throws and one more defensive stop sealed the deal, halting what was a valiant effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Gobert's defense ranks second in RAPTOR +/- (+7.2 points per 100 possessions) and EPM (+3.7), and has two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and a well-deserved reputation as evidence of his ability to shut down opponents. He changed a lot of shots tonight, but a couple that he failed to thwart had the biggest impact on both the scoreboard AND his body. Naturally, Williamson was the culprit.
Gobert has been as advertised on defense, but Zion got him here: pic.twitter.com/bN7RfiteqF— Mike Delayo (@NolaYanks2740) March 2, 2021
And again! This Zion fellow is one tough cookie. pic.twitter.com/N2Bd2XUmcn— Mike Delayo (@NolaYanks2740) March 2, 2021
The need for Zion to be doubled at pretty much all times once he gets the ball down low may never be more evident than after watching those two plays. The brute strength to create the space and the soft touch to make the shot have been evident from day one, but the ability to do this consistently over the course of an entire game against an entire team of smart and able defenders never gets old.
Eight Pelicans hit the floor once again, and in terms of efficiency, the bench trio of Josh Hart, JJ Redick, and Willy Hernangomez was about as good as they could be. Redick had not one but TWO four-point plays, Hart made six of his seven shots (and, like Ingram, took none from beyond the arc), and Hernangomez held his own in a handful of minutes matched up against Gobert.
Hart and Hernangomez were also two of the five Pelicans with at least seven rebounds, which helped New Orleans win that overall battle of the glass 53-39. Bojan Bogdanovic, who scored a game-high 31 points anchored by 7-11 shooting from deep, is as good as anyone in the league in turning the chaos of an offensive rebound into three points, which he made clear once again tonight. Minimizing those opportunities as much as possible was key, and though Utah's 11 offensive rebounds played a big part in their big second and fourth quarters (in which they scored 41 and 36 respectively), the door was shut in their face when it mattered most.
Ball had yet another solid offensive game in what has likely been the best month on that side of the ball in his career. Any box score that boasts 23 points, eight assists, zero turnovers and seven rebounds is worthy of at least one double take, but such results are becoming less and less shocking for the 23-year-old guard. The few extra feet of space that his shot now creates has so far equated to miles of open road for the offense, and Williamson in particular, to wreak havoc.
During one first-half sequence, the Pelicans were struggling to get a bucket and Ball caught a pass trapped in the corner. Instead of trying to reset with a waning shot clock, as was standard protocol last season, Ball rose immediately and sunk the shot. He made at least two threes in all 15 of the Pelicans February games, combining for 56 made triples on 45.9% shooting. Well, his teammate JJ Redick's career-high in 3PM for one month is 53 in December 2014, when he knocked down 49.1% of his looks. For Ball, that's pretty sweet company.
The Pelicans are fortunate that Zo’s perimeter shot seems to be here to stay, because they are certainly going to need it in order to ensure a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Now sitting at 15-19, one back-to-back against Chicago and Miami on Wednesday and Thursday remain before the All-Star break. A win against a dominant Jazz team is as good a propellant as any, but recent history has shown that even the best of wins for this young team could be followed by the most disappointing of losses.
Even so, the silver lining is that the Jazz did what they wanted to do tonight and the Pelicans still found a way to win. Not many teams have been able to say that this year. It's a testament to Williamson, to Ingram, to Ball, and to this entire team. The potential to be great is there. They have been great at times. Here's hoping that play continues, for a change.