Putting together 48 minutes is suddenly an arduous task for the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Cavaliers dominated the fourth quarter on Monday, the Heat governed the entire matchup on Wednesday, and in tonight’s 123-110 loss, the Magic reigned supreme during the final 12 minutes.
“We have to find our defensive identity and right now we’re not guarding the way we’re capable,” Willie Green said. “Those are things we control. We can make decision as a team that we want to guard better. We just haven’t been doing it.”
The Pelicans were outscored 35-19 in the fourth this evening, which was very similar to the 35-22 margin witnessed on Monday when Darius Garland dissected New Orleans’ defense.
Franz Wagner filled the Garland role on Friday, proving unstoppable and laying claim to the best player on the floor. He finished with 30 points, six rebounds and nine assists. He nailed five of seven from deep and 10 of 16 from the field overall.
The Pelicans also had major issues with slowing down Cole Anthony (22 points, four assists), Bol Bol (12 points on five of seven shooting), and the combination of Gary Harris and Terrence Ross from the outside. The shooting guards made six of eight 3-pointers between them.
“We just didn’t get into the ball,” Green said. “It didn’t feel like they felt us much in terms of guarding the ball. When we did have an opportunity to stop them, our discipline has to be better. We’re fouling guys, putting guys on the free throw line.
“They were the aggressors. That’s why they shot extremely well from the field because they made a decision that they’re going to force the issue, get to the paint. If they didn’t have it, they kicked out to guys and made shots.”
Glancing at the final box score, one would have never guessed that the Pelicans raced out to a 14-point lead in the first quarter. That Jonas Valanciunas and Jaxson Hayes combined for 18 points in the first 12 minutes. Or that Trey Murphy scored 15 points in the third quarter — the second-highest point total of his career for any quarter.
The defensive rotations and multiple efforts on that end were very good in the early minutes too.
However, all the good trends evaporated as the game progressed, and in the fourth quarter, the Magic were simply better. They looked more athletic, more skilled and showed a greater desire to fetch the victory.
CJ McCollum led the Pelicans with 23 points but hit only six of 21 shots.
Jonas Valanciunas tallied 20 points, while notching his 10,000th point scored for his career, and added 10 rebounds.
Trey Murphy scored 18 points — recording just two shot attempts outside of the third quarter, Jose Alvarado had 17 and Jaxson Hayes, 14.
The New Orleans Pelicans sorely miss Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. A few days ago I pondered their number of missed games — now up to a combined 48 — could soon start haunting the team. That can’t even be a point of contention anymore.
New Orleans is 7-7 without both stars and they’ve lost eight of their last 11 contests. It’s close to a free fall in the standings, one that should inspire the coaching staff to drift outside of their comfort zone.
The Devonte’ Graham minutes were ghastly. The entire team struggled, as evidenced by a plus-minus of -21 in his 13 minutes, but Graham’s individual ineffectiveness was on clear display. During one offensive possession, a perimeter pass was nearly stolen, and then seconds later, a 3-point shot missed badly.
This single offensive possession from tonight exemplifies just how much Devonte' Graham is struggling right now. A run-of-the-mill perimeter pass nearly resulted in a turnover & then a 3-point attempt seconds later had a better chance of banking in than swishing through the net. pic.twitter.com/dtY286QxWa— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) January 21, 2023
Graham’s confidence is undoubtedly shaky at the moment. It has been for some time. The Pelicans are slumping and have been in a tailspin since losing Williamson to injury. Everyone needs to contribute positively in order to breakthrough into the win column. As I surmised earlier today, why not give Kira Lewis Jr. a chance, at least in the interim?
Things won’t get any easier either way. Ingram, whose return should be around the corner, may require several games to find his rhythm. And the Miami Heat lie in wait on Sunday. They throttled the Pelicans earlier this week and were themselves victimized by the Mavericks in a 115-90 loss tonight.
You can be sure that the Heat will be eager to make amends. How about the Pelicans? Your guess is as good as mine.