With three games remaining in the 2021 regular season, the New Orleans Pelicans are all but eliminated from playoff contention.
That doesn’t mean that the Pelicans don’t still have something to play for during these games.
New Orleans has a 6-9 record over its last 15 games. While the .400 winning percentage during that stretch is below the team’s .449 season mark, the Pelicans have shown marked improvement in a number of areas.
Defensively, with youngsters like Jaxson Hayes, Naji Marshall, Wenyen Gabriel, and Willy Hernangomez providing length and range, the Pelicans have made it much more difficult for opponents to take and make good shots.
New Orleans is holding opponents to 45.4% shooting on defended shots as of late, ranking sixth in the NBA, up from 19th overall.
The Pels’ improvement defending the three has been even more dramatic. Better rotations and closeouts have cut the defended 3-point field goal percentage of New Orleans’ foes from 38.1% for the season, to 34.6% over those 15 games.
Criticized for his defensive concepts for most of the season, Stan Van Gundy has to be encouraged by what he’s seeing now.
The New Orleans Pelicans still have some major problems with execution late offensively, and consistent perimeter shooting remains an area of concern heading into next season, but if Van Gundy is going to be successful as a coach, and if the Pelicans are going to experience real success as a team, building a defensive mindset has to be priority number one.
Credit has to be given to the coaching staff for developing players from end of the bench question marks into high-potential/low-cost contributors, while seeing improvement from it’s trio of recent high draft picks.
The return of Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been a shot in the arm (get your vaccine) for an offense learning to live without both Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. NAW can be mercurial, but there isn’t a guard on the roster who presents as many problems at as many levels as he does.
Hayes continues to emerge as a disruptive force on both ends, and Hernangomez has been much more than a placeholder for Steven Adams.
Marshall has a strong claim of being the team’s best defender right now and for the future, with Kira Lewis, as raw as he is, getting meaningful minutes.
So, even if the Pels are eliminated from the postseason, this isn’t the time to start making vacation plans.
Three more games means three more opportunities to learn, to compete, and to win.
Wednesday night, the Pelicans face the Dallas Mavericks. New Orleans has lost five of six against the Mavs, but took the last meeting, 112-103.
Dallas returns home fresh off a 133-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and needing wins to move past Portland into the Western Conference’s top five.
Kristaps Porzingis is likely to play, after missing games recently with knee soreness. Former Pelicans’ JJ Redick and Nico Melli are both expected to see the court as well.
One thing is guaranteed, the Mavericks are going to shoot the ball. Dallas is going to have three or four shooters on the court at all times.
The short-handed Pelicans have to stay committed to the principles and level of effort they’ve shown on defense to have a chance to steal a road win. It’s encouraging that the chance of seeing that no longer feels comically remote.
There is no question that learning to play is critical. The Pelicans have demonstrated that they are doing that.
It would be nice to close out the season by seeing them learning how to win, too.