clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Naji Marshall’s stellar performance helps Pelicans escape Cleveland with 116-109 victory over Cavaliers

Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram were special offensively, but they need to start setting the example defensively too

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This shouldn’t have been a competitive game that required a win in clutch time.

The Cavaliers have been one of the worst teams since February 1 and they tipped off without three key starters in Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Jarrett Allen.

Yet, the Pelicans found themselves trailing 39-29 at the conclusion of the first quarter.

They sat on the wrong end of a 68-62 halftime score despite a Jaxson Hayes’ heave finding the bottom of the net.

And apparently wanting to keep the theme consistent, the Pelicans were down 94-90 to begin the final frame.

However, a 12-3 run by a quartet of lesser known contributors in the fourth gave New Orleans their first lead since the opening minutes, and then a steady diet of good defense, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram propelled the team to victory.

The Pelicans are leaving Cleveland with a 116-109 win, but outside of that difference-making fourth quarter, they were flat defensively and in the effort department for far too long.

“The last 7-8 minutes of the game we played pretty well,” Stan Van Gundy said to postgame media. “For the rest of the night, especially based on who they had, they played harder than we did. They played with more focus than we did. They played better than we did. We had more talent on the floor, which is what kept it close, and then our guys finished it well.”

The Cavaliers had a 53.8 FG%, a 38.5 3PT% and 24 assists through the first three quarters. Dean Wade resembled an unstoppable sharpshooter (21 points, five threes). Isaac Okoro set a new career high with 19 points. Isaiah Hartenstein, Taurean Prince and Cedi Osman all collectively made important splashes as role players.

During one stretch in the first quarter, the Pelicans had no idea how to effectively guard a screen off the ball which resulted in several open Kevin Love three-point attempts. And for much of the game, Matthew Dellavedova was allowed to get inside the paint to wreak havoc as New Orleans defenders chased him over screens instead of sliding under and daring the poor outside threat to shoot.

Honestly, this lack of effort and focus was so upsetting that I didn’t pay much attention to Zion sitting on 25 points at the half — which had him in prime position to crack the 40-point plateau for the first time of his professional career.

While Williamson (38 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Ingram (27 points, eight assists) were very good offensively and finished with big statistical lines, it was disconcerting that neither player affected the game elsewhere. If you follow me on Twitter, you would have noticed that B.I., in particular, drew my ire.

There were several instances of where Ingram failed to box out a Cleveland defender on the weak side which resulted in points for the opponent and a moment in the first half of barely jogging back to play defense after an offensive rebound kept a Cavaliers’ possession alive.

There can’t be displays of such indifference if the Pelicans hope to keep playing past the regular season, and Van Gundy agreed with this premise in postgame, calling for more from the two cornerstones.

“I didn’t think that {Zion} got into the game defensively. I didn’t thank Brandon got into the game defensively. So, those guys combined for 65 points, 12 assists — I don’t know how many rebounds — and I think we need more out of them, quite honestly. I think we need more. Those are the two franchise guys. They have to lead the way. They have to set an example and not just on offense.”

Van Gundy went on to reiterate for the fiftieth or so time that he loves Zion and B.I., both in what they provide offensively and as people in general — so don’t take his words to mean as some slight.

“I love what they did offensively. I love both of those guys. They’re high character guys. Good players. About all the right things. I know they want to win. I know they want to lead. I know they still have got a lot to learn and they’re trying damn hard to learn it. But a part of it is they have to take accountability, that even with those huge numbers, they weren’t good enough tonight. They need to bring more to the game.”

James Johnson, Willy Hernangomez and Kira Lewis Jr. were all instrumental in the Pelicans seizing the momentum in the fourth quarter, but no New Orleans role player had as much of an impact for the entire contest than Naji Marshall.

The Pels’ two-way player was given the game ball afterwards by the team for his 15-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist effort and he was named the MVP by Van Gundy.

“He plays hard all the time,” Van Gundy said. “We go up and down in that department, but Naji doesn’t go up and down ... Even though Brandon and Zion had big numbers, but if we look at both ends of the floor and how the game went, Naji was probably our MVP.”

The video footage shows no lies.

Marshall is only 13 games into his NBA career, but the Pelicans have leaned heavily on him this month due to the onslaught of injuries to the roster.

While the shooting percentages haven’t been there, his hustle and commitment to the defensive end have filled a necessary void. It’s made for deeply satisfying viewing, to be honest. And tonight, Naji’s shot dropping was a big reason why New Orleans escaped Cleveland with the important W.

There’s no doubt that all wins count the same in the standings, but the Pelicans would be best served by not continuing to play down to the level of the competition. There’s only 19 games left and New Orleans can’t afford any more hiccups.

Thankfully, the team evaded a harsh, painful lesson from the Cavaliers on Sunday.

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.