Pelicans keep alternating discouraging, encouraging play
The New Orleans Pelicans make it easy to get discouraged about them ever playing consistently well.
They also make it difficult to write them off.
Their most promising moments are usually followed by discouraging ones, and their most discouraging ones are usually followed by promising ones.
The road trip that concluded with a promising 113-108 victory at Denver on Sunday afternoon demonstrated the Jekyl-and-Hyde nature of this team. The trip started with the discouragement of the worst fourth-quarter blown lead in the NBA this season in a loss at Portland.
That was followed by a much better defensive effort and a much worse offensive effort in another loss at Portland on Thursday.
Then the Pelicans held off the Nuggets, who had won eight of their last nine games, even though starting point guard Lonzo Ball was sidelined by a hip injury.
“Over the course of the game,” coach Stan Van Gundy said, “we fought really, really hard against a team that was playing as well if not better than any other team in the West.”
In order to fully appreciate how these three games fit within the narrative of the Pelicans’ entire season, we must place them in the context of how the Pelicans returned from the All-Star Break.
They began the second half of the season within striking distance of a playoff or play-in spot as they opened with three consecutive home games.
First up were the Minnesota Timberwolves – the worst team in the NBA and a group that had beaten the Pelicans by 10 points despite missing two starters earlier in the season.
The Pelicans were outstanding for the first several minutes, opening a 16-point lead.
From then on they were outscored by 46 points in arguably the worst performance by any NBA team this season.
The first performance of the second half of the season could not have been more discouraging for anyone hopeful of a playoff push.
The Pelicans had to return to the court 24 hours later against a Cleveland team that didn’t have a record much better than Minnesota, but a team that was getting starting forwards Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. back from injury.
New Orleans took command in the second quarter and won by 31 points.
Two days later they concluded the home-stand against a much better team – the Los Angeles Clippers – and won about as easily as they had against the Cavs, leading by 27 at the end of the third quarter and prevailing by 20.
The response to the discouraging loss to the Timberwolves was promising.
Then came the first game in Portland.
The Pelicans led by 17 with six minutes remaining. The stretch from the second quarter of the Cleveland game until the middle of the fourth quarter Tuesday might have been the best stretch of Pelicans basketball this season.
But the terrible last six minutes wiped out the outstanding 42 minutes that preceded them.
“The last six minutes of the game, to me, we just quit playing,” Van Gundy said. “We just didn’t play the way we played the whole game, like we were trying to run the clock out.”
The Pelicans scored just nine points in the final seven minutes and got outscored 43-29 in the fourth quarter.
They were clinging to a three-point lead in the final minute when Brandon Ingram, who led the Pelicans with 30 points and is an 87 percent foul shooter, missed two free throws with 7.2 seconds left.
They were clinging to a one-point lead when Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who had 20 points, including six 3-pointers, off the bench, he fumbled an inbounds pass out of bounds with 4.2 seconds left.
Damian Lillard got fouled with 1.2 seconds left and made two decisive free throws for the final two of his 50 points in a 125-124 Blazers win.
Lillard made 13-of-20 field goals, including six 3-pointers, and made all 18 of his free throws.
“We made mistakes that we would rather have them in the first three quarters,” Zion Williamson said. “We just made them at the wrong time. Portland capitalized each and every time we made one.”
Two nights later Lillard scored 36 points as the Blazers beat the Pelicans 101-93.
When the Pelicans played the Blazers on Feb. 4 in the Smoothie King Center, Lillard had 43 points and a career-high 16 assists and converted a game-winning three-point play with 16 seconds remaining in a 126-124 victory.
Lillard is one of the best closers in the NBA. Ingram is paid to make the same types of plays down the stretch.
Ingram didn’t do it in Portland. He did it in Denver.
He converted two three-point plays in the final five minutes. He assisted on a Williamson dunk down the stretch. He finished with 30 points, matching Williamson’s total, and eight assists.
“We executed how you had to at the end of the game to win,” Van Gundy said.
Now the Pelicans come home for another three-game home-stand. It starts Tuesday night against the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Former Pelican All-Star Anthony Davis will not play because of an Achilles injury.
LeBron James is all but certain to not play because of a high ankle sprain suffered Saturday.
It would be so like the Pelicans to lose to a team missing two elite players.
It would be so like the Pelicans to beat the defending champions.
Guess which will happen at your own peril.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…