Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
The New Orleans Pelicans fall behind early in a winnable game, make a late push, but ultimately come up short.
Pelicans fans have seen this play out on their television screens more often than The Shawshank Redemption, though I’d imagine that Andy Dufresne’s journey through 500 yards of waste to freedom seems like a walk in the park compared to suffering through another disappointing loss.
In the record books, a 128-124 loss to the Chicago Bulls doesn’t look that bad. But the score doesn’t tell the story.
It’s no fairy tale either. Don’t be fooled by the 45 points in the fourth quarter that made the margin of defeat more respectable.
The story remains the Pelicans inability and/or unwillingness to play defense with any consistent effort or intelligence.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy seems as frustrated by this as we are.
“My thing with them tonight was that when we talk about consistency, we’re not talking about going three-for-seven from three every night and having a consistent shooting night and scoring points every night or even making free throws every night,” he said. “We’re talking about how you get to be consistent as a team in your approach. It’s in your effort and intensity, and it’s in your focus with what’s going on. We made so many game plan mistakes in the first quarter, and then in the third quarter, we’re giving up back-cuts. Not only was our energy and pace and effort not good, but our focus wasn’t good. Why? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.”
Over the course of two games versus the Bulls, New Orleans gave up 30 or more points in five of eight quarters, including two with at least 40. They allowed the Bulls to make nearly 55 percent of their shots and convert 37 of 55 three point attempts.
I guess you could give the Pelicans some credit. The Bulls did score one fewer point than they did in the teams’ previous meeting, and they didn’t set a franchise record in any statistical category. So that’s something.
But far too often, the Pels played defense as if it were just something to do between offensive possessions. The Bulls were allowed to run through the Smoothie King Center as if it were Pamplona, and the home team got the horns.
A team with Zion Williamson got beaten 64-54 in points in the paint and outrebounded 45-35, with 13 of those boards given up on the offensive glass.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the Pelicans found themselves trailing by 18 points early in the fourth quarter.
The surprise came in the form of the comeback, and in particular, who led it.
It started with an alley-oop from Josh Hart to Jaxson Hayes. Suddenly Hayes, who hadn’t seen the court since Feb. 21, turned into a man possessed on both ends of the floor.
The second-year center played almost the entire fourth quarter, showing the immense natural ability that convinced the organization to make him a lottery pick.
His hands were active on defense, and he protected the rim by rejecting a season-high three shots.
And when he got chances to run in the open floor, he and his teammates took advantage, connecting with Hayes on multiple lobs and finishes around the rim.
Fellow reserves Josh Hart and JJ Redick contributed heavily as well. The trio combined for 24 points in the final period, converting 11 of their 13 shot attempts with Hayes going 5-for-5. With the starters adding only five buckets in the fourth, the justifiably maligned bench was the only reason the Pelicans were within sight of Chicago.
However, it was once again too little, too late.
All of the mental errors helped dig a hole that New Orleans could not climb out of.
It was poetic, in a twisted and torturous way, for a city that exists below sea level.
What makes it even worse are the moments when the Pelicans pull you in, and make you feel like this game is the one that starts the winning streak that proves what this team really is.
In a way, they have proven it. They are an immensely talented, yet immensely flawed collection of players. They are less than the sum of their parts.
While there are multiple reasons for that being the case, one stands above all the rest; a lack of pride on the defensive end.
No matter where a discussion about this team begins, it must circle back to the defense.
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson famously said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
In sports, as in life, those punches will come. How we respond to those punches reveals our character.
It was Van Gundy again, who made a very sobering observation regarding the Pelicans’ ability to step up and take on those hits.
“One of our problems is our guys will beat themselves up about missing shots and missing free throws, but the defensive stuff just doesn’t get to them in the same way,” he said. “It doesn’t bother them that we gave up 128 points tonight. It’s not the same thing, so I’m not sure that we’re holding ourselves accountable for the right things.”
Redick, one of the few players on the roster to taste real success in the league, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“Winning and losing, I think, should bother you,” Redick stated. “When you look on our defensive numbers, that’s where you have to be bothered by defense. I think if you have any competitive juice at all, you’d be bothered by looking at our defensive numbers because that’s ultimately what’s preventing us from putting together more consistency in terms of the result.”
Simply put, there’s a huge difference between playing basketball, and playing WINNING basketball.
It’s not age or experience holding the Pelicans back. It’s their lack of commitment on the defensive end of the floor.
And until that changes, the New Orleans Pelicans continue to frustrate themselves and their fan base.