New Orleans dropped its third game in a row, and now has its third losing streak of at least three games this season.
Three was in fact, not the magic number for the Pelicans.
Though, the three-pointer did almost allow New Orleans to steal a win against the defending Western Conference champions.
Devonte’ Graham knocked down back-to-back triples to cut a deficit that was as much as 16 points, down to just two with 6:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, that’s as close as the Pelicans would get, as the Suns would close with a 22-11 burst to finish the game.
“It just comes down to execution,” Willie Green said about what made the difference in the outcome. “(The Suns) executed well at the end of the game and got quality looks and made them.”
Graham led the Pelicans with 28 points, connecting on six of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc.
It wasn’t enough to keep New Orleans from being outscored by 21 points on threes. Phoenix made 17 triples on 31 attempts. The Suns shot better behind the arc (54.8%) than they did overall (54.1%).
The Pelicans defense hadn’t surrendered a 50/50 performance since Dec. 1, when the Dallas Mavericks were able to pull the trick in a 139-107 victory.
Considering the caliber of the opponent, and the fatigue of playing this ridiculous schedule, it’s a bit easier to view New Orleans’ lack of resistance as simply water topping the levee for a moment rather than the full, Army Corp of Engineers-level of failure, we might have seen in seasons past.
“We’re competing to the end,” said Graham. “Honestly, that’s why Utah and Phoenix are top teams and they know how to finish the games. Guys get to their spots, and they just make plays down the stretch. That’s just what it was. We didn’t get stops when we needed to, they did, but we played great.”
Again, all things considered.
Charge it to the game on that end of the court. It was one of those nights.
The same can’t be said for the Pelicans offense, which still remains susceptible to huge swings in productivity within any given quarter, let alone any night.
Given the obligatory acknowledgement that this roster was built to maximize the talents of the currently sidelined Zion Williamson, the problem is deeper than that.
But while the subject of who, or what, is missing is being discussed, let us also acknowledge that the Pelicans entered this season without a single viable option at backup point guard.
Without Williamson, the Pelicans have shared the wealth when it’s come to playmaking duties, but there hasn’t been a player with enough control or command to really run a set when the game is on the line.
Brandon Ingram has taken great strides as a clutch scorer this season, and as a passer. He remains most effective passing when trying to score, rather than passing when trying to create for others.
Graham is limited by his size as a passer in the half court. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was supposed to help in that capacity, but his erratic shot selection and lack of situational awareness have made him a boom-or-bust proposition each night.
Josh Hart works best as a connector, not a facilitator.
Tomas Satoransky. Kira Lewis, Jr. Jose Alvarado. None of them have ever run an offense for a winning team.
That lack of skill was evident throughout the loss to the Suns.
A capable point guard would have been able to help Ingram get into his favorite shooting spots to start the game, knowing that the All-Star was still working himself into a rhythm after returning from injury.
Instead, Ingram took only two shots in the entire first quarter, one of those being a ferocious dunk following an explosive attack on the rim.
Brandon Ingram takes it STRONG to the rack pic.twitter.com/uohqMb0DP5— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 5, 2022
Phoenix was playing without DeAndre Ayton and JaVale McGee. Jonas Valanciunas, who did finish with 25 points and 16 rebounds, could have scored 40.
He might have with more proven on-court leadership available.
Valanciunas was visibly begging for the basketball after establishing position in the post against the Suns’ smaller post players or forwards unfortunate enough to find themselves in a switch.
Too often his pleas went unheard.
Watching Chris Paul, the greatest point guard of his generation and one of the greatest ever at his position, masterfully manipulate the Pelicans, it’s easy to see why he was both so coveted and simultaneously out of reach this past offseason.
The gulf between the Pelicans and the Suns isn’t as far as it might seem. The major difference is that the Suns were ready to make their jump. James Jones and Monty Williams laid the ground work back in that Orlando bubble.
So far, the Pelicans’ road to success has seen too many potholes. The good news is that there is no need to repave the whole thing. Filling that void at point guard would go a long way to a smoother ride.
Mortgaging the future to nab a discontented “star” player from another sub-.500 team isn’t the play here.
In the mean time, the Pelicans have to pay more attention to detail on the offensive end.
Hold that screen just a half-beat longer.
Maintain spacing in order to prevent one man from guarding two.
Do the little things.
And for the next few days ... survive.