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Naji Marshall’s strong performance on both ends of court lifts Pelicans to 80-65 victory over Thunder

Make it two straight games that New Orleans’ swarming defense has suffocated an opponent in the second half

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans improved their summer league record to 2-0 on the backs of multiple strong second-half defensive performances, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder, 80-65.

At halftime, the contest was knotted up at 35 points apiece. The Pelicans proceeded to win the third quarter by a 22-14 margin, and the fourth, 23-16.

The team’s full-fledged effort was witnessed all the way to the final buzzer, highlighted by Naji Marshall forcing Tre Mann into a turnover during the final minute of the game after some hounding man-to-man defense.

“This, right here, is for the future and the regular season so it’s just about building good habits,” Marshall said to NBA TV’s Dennis Scott after being asked about that defensive intensity. “Show how to be an example for the young guys — try to set the intensity — and close out the game, no matter how much you’re up, by still playing hard.”

Marshall started somewhat slowly, not looking entirely comfortable on offense, but then found his groove to finish with a line of 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. In the process, he nearly put Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on a poster.

Although the five turnovers were somewhat problematic, Marshall’s outside shooting was not. He hit 3-5 from 3-point range, with all three makes consisting of the catch-and-shoot variety. If he can carry over that efficiency into the 2021-22 regular season, Marshall should receive a lot of minutes in the rotation, possibly even earning a starting nod at times considering the construction of the current roster.

Kira Lewis Jr. started hot in scoring the basketball, carrying the offense by connecting on his first three shot attempts. That included a couple of makes from three, but his poise in controlling the tempo of the game and his individual defensive contributions later were just as important. Lewis has quick hands and feet so he should aim to be that pesky defender considering he’ll usually be matched up against bigger guards in the league most nights.

Trey Murphy, after a splendid 6-9 shooting performance from the outside in game 1, failed to net a single make from three (0-3). However, he converted on all of his other shot attempts, surprising onlookers with two beautiful floaters.

Murphy’s defense, as with Marshall and Lewis, was an obvious positive on the court. He added three steals and a block to his line of 10 points and six rebounds. That’s great to see since every great shooter suffers the occasional off-night. Contributing in other areas could force Willie Green’s hand to give the rookie early minutes in the rotation.

Didi Louzada added a couple of threes in the third quarter and had a couple of nice passes that set up teammates for clean looks, but it’s apparent that he’ll need to strengthen his handle if he has any hopes of cracking the rotation despite the usual solid on-ball defense.

Herbert Jones (seven points, two rebounds, two steals) didn’t make a noticeable imprint in the boxscore, but that’s not his job for the foreseeable future. He can guard any position on the floor and that was evidenced tonight when Green had him function as a small-ball five successfully.

“Herb, he can play doggone every position,” Green said in postgame. “When gets in defensively, he’s a disruptor. He’s always in the right position. He’s blocking shots. Multiple efforts.”

The Thunder were led by Aaron Wiggin’s 16 points, and Tre Mann added 12 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

If the first two summer league games are any indication, the new head coach has his sights set on the Pelicans becoming a defense-first team next season as he’s beginning to install the necessary mindset during this Las Vegas exhibition.

“As I’ve told these guys already, we want to start with our defense,” Green said. “We have to be a sound defensive team in order to compete and win at a high level. I think our guys are doing a tremendous job of buying in and we want to continue to build.”

Love hearing it, Coach.

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