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Early returns on New Orleans Pelicans’ defense are positive

A good test awaits in Miami against the Heat

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Pelicans have real aspirations to be one of the elite Western Conference teams as soon as this season, the defensive side of the ball is where the biggest strides must be made.

Even if the three-point shot isn’t falling every night, scoring isn’t going to be a problem. No other player has owned the paint offensively like Zion Williamson in recent history. CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram are as dangerous from the midrange area as they are in making a play for others. And the roster is littered with secondary scorers.

Did you know that a bench contributor has led the team in every preseason game so far? Against the Bulls, Devonte’ Graham’s 21 points led the Pelicans’ charge. In matchups against the Pistons and Spurs, Jose Alvarado (28 points) and Trey Murphy (27 points) each took a turn, respectively.

None of this is to say that the Pelicans defense hasn’t been carrying its weight thus far. The team’s defensive ranking currently sits seventh (98.8 DRTG) and they’ve limited opponents from the field (40.4 FG% — 8th) and the 3-point line (28.8 3PT% — 3rd).

Those marks would look significantly better if one was to eliminate the third quarter performance in Chicago, where the Bulls scored 39 points on 59.1 percent shooting from the field and 80.0 percent from 3 in the frame.

“I like the fact that we’re carrying over what we did last season,” Willie Green said after today’s practice. “We want to be a team that gets stops no matter who we play, so we’re doing that. We’re active, we’re into the ball, we’re protecting the paint, we’re forcing teams to shoot contested shots all game — that’s hard to play against.”

I’ve been particularly fond of seeing opposing teams have difficultly with putting the ball through the hoop from in close. The Pelicans have outscored their opponents by 17.3 points in the paint. That’s an incredible advantage.

Then there’s been moments of individual brilliance. Herb Jones is still doing amazing things, like jumping over a screen to block an opponent’s jumper. Jose Alvarado remains as pesky as ever and Dyson Daniels leading New Orleans in steals is no coincidence. He’s looked as bullish on defense as last year’s two rookie standouts.

Of course, fans must remain grounded. This is the exhibition season. A lot of things need to be taken with a grain of salt. Then there’s also the fact that two of the three opponents in the rear view mirror are not even expected to legitimately contend for the next play-in tournament.

That’s why Wednesday’s matchup against the Miami Heat should be such an enticing one to watch. It’s a good test — even if it doesn’t count in the regular season standings.

Erik Spoelstra teams don’t just show up. They show out.


So, not only does a reasonable chance exist we’ll see the regular starting lineup of CJ McCollum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas together for a first time, the Heat should be a decent measuring stick.

The Pelicans know they are far from being a finished product, including on the defensive end.

“Defensively, being at the level as a big,” Jonas Valanciunas said on Saturday. “Shifting, taking a three away. We can find any areas, but that’s why we’re working.”

Valanciunas is right. The Pelicans, for instance, have given up an average of 41.7 3-point attempts through three preseason games. That’s currently fifth-most in the league. That figure must come down once the regular campaign gets underway.

The Pelicans have, as expected, been fun. Many improvements have been noted early. If they can deliver a performance against the Heat similar to their previous preseason opponents, however, then their exhibition accomplishments will hold a little more water.

“We can still be better, just overall,” Green said. “We want to strive to be better especially when we play the top teams. They’re going to force you to have to make adjustments and I think that’s where we can grow.”

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (3-0) at Miami Heat (3-1)

When: October 12, 2022, 6:30 p.m. CT

Where to watch: (for local viewers only), Bally Sports Sun (NBA League Pass)

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

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.