The New Orleans Pelicans are still alive in the NBA play-in tournament, but Monday’s 123-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors showed common themes throughout the season and possibly gave fans a sign of the team moving forward.
In some ways, The Marvel Arena of Heroes broadcast on ESPN2 introduced the next phase for the Pelicans.
A trail of smoke appeared behind every 3-pointer and “HULK SMASH!” flashed over the rim in the Warriors’ win over the Pelicans.
There was more significance to the game for New Orleans.
The Pelicans entered the contest three games behind the Warriors for the NBA’s play-in tournament. They were also 2.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs.
Once the smoke cleared, the Pelicans found themselves stuck in phase one of their ongoing universe.
It was a slow start for the Pelicans in an important game as they trailed by 18 points after the first quarter, the backcourt defense allowed another high-scoring night, the 3-point line was a difference maker and Zion Williamson was Zion Williamson.
Vince Carter noticed the lack of energy from New Orleans with seven minutes left in the first half over on ESPN.
“Right now, you don’t get or see the sense of urgency like ‘Hey we need this game.'”
Williamson led the team with 32 points and eight rebounds. No one else really stepped into a leading or supporting role.
Brandon Ingram totaled 19 points, but he only shot 11 times. Lonzo Ball was second on the Pelicans in shot attempts on 3-of-18 shooting from the field. Forward James Johnson was next in shot attempts with 3-of-10 shooting from the field and 0-of-3 from the 3-point line. Naji Marshall provided some moments as he was third on the team in scoring with 12 points off the bench.
Williamson has provided superhero-like efforts game after game. New Orleans finds themselves on the outside looking in.
The positive side to the Pelicans is based on the improvements from individual players. Williamson has shown how dominant he can be in year two. Ball is averaging a career-high in points per game (14.3) and field goal percentage (41.4). The team found a productive player in Naji Marshall. Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have shown who they can be in the league with their play after the All-Star break.
The Pelicans feel like they’re rolling out origin films before releasing the summer blockbuster.
Williamson becomes the face of the franchise after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Ingram’s career was threatened due to a blood clot before being traded to the Pelicans. He was named Most improved Player and an NBA All-Star in his first season with New Orleans.
Ball’s career has been viewed in many lights. His potential coming out of UCLA has either been boosted by his flashes of ability to lead a modern NBA offense or the comments by his father LaVar Ball.
The broadcast put the spotlight on the individuals when it really showed the questions around the Pelicans as a team.
The team could determine their next phase with their performances around Point Zion and the 3-point line.
New Orleans has not shot the ball well from the 3-point line. They rank 27th in the league in 3-pointers made per game (10.6). The Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors are the only teams in the top ten of 3s made per game that are below .500.
The Pelicans have also had 26 games in which they made less than 10 3-pointers. They’re 9-17 in those games.
Nineteen of those 26 games occurred once New Orleans fully embraced Point Zion. When they make 12 or more 3-pointers in a game, the Pelicans are 16-12. Eighteen of those 28 games occurred since Point Zion.
The Pelicans haven’t taken advantage of Point Zion from beyond the arc since embracing this new role on Feb. 5, according to The Advocate’s Christian Clark.
The Pelicans are 9th in offensive rating at 114.9 since Feb. 5, but they are still 27th in 3s made per game during this span. The offensive output was not necessarily the problem because the Pelicans were 28th in defensive rating from Feb. 5-April 1.
Since the start of April, the offensive and defensive numbers have almost flipped. The Pelicans are 25th in offensive rating since April 1 and sixth in defensive rating (109.2). New Orleans is 8-11 since April 1.
It’s not only about hitting 3-pointers for the Pelicans. It’s also about limiting the opponent to a lower percentage. They are 23-8 when holding opponents to under 37 percent from the 3-point line. The Warriors shot 38.6 percent from three on Monday.
The game also showed a common theme for the Pelicans backcourt defense.
It’s clear the roster is not a finished product. Injuries during the season to Ball, Josh Hart and Alexander-Walker have not helped. Eric Bledsoe is Eric Bledsoe and no one could have guessed this is the Eric Bledsoe the Pelicans would acquire in the trade. A new head coach had two weeks of training camp and limited practice time due to the 72-game season.
The unfinished product has been frustrating throughout the season due to the promise of the individuals. The Pelicans have lost 14 games this season when they’ve led by double digits.
The offseason is going to be telling about how Pelicans build their team around the talent in place.
No one expected this team to be a finished product in the first year under a new head coach and year two with Williamson and Ingram. With other expectations, the ending to the Pelicans season could feel closer to the ending of Avengers: Infinity War with the same odds of making the play-in as a mouse activating a time machine to save humanity.
The Pelicans aren’t that far in their process yet and there is still an opportunity for the Pelicans to make this year’s play-in tournament.
However, the team’s vision is clearer. The reality of the situation is the season isn’t planned out by a writer or director geared towards a satisfying ending. The ending to this Pelicans season is written by a team entering the next phase.