HOUSTON – Friday night marked just the second time this season the New Orleans Pelicans have been involved in a game that was decided in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. And it was only fitting that one of their first experiences in such a crucial situation with the game in the balance occurred in their first In-Season Tournament game, on their opponent’s customized red floor for the new event.
In this duel with the Houston Rockets, the Pelicans’ late-game offense suffered through a slow death on what resembled a blood-soaked hardwood.
The Pels allowed a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away en route to a 104-101 loss, their fourth consecutive defeat after a 4-1 start. And much of it was due to their stars’ inability to do what stars are supposed to do late in games.
“(The Rockets) made plays down the stretch of the game. … We had a couple turnovers, a couple miscues,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “It’s a growth moment for us. We’ll continue to grow from this.”
For once, the Pelicans had both Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson healthy and playing at a high level in the same game. The two stars combined for 55 points in their fifth appearance together this season. Each had stretches during the game when they looked like the most dominant players on the court.
When the pressure rises, as it did down the stretch, their talent is supposed to shine through against most opponents, especially those with fewer high-end stars like Houston. However, the amount of time Ingram and Williamson have missed the past few years due to injury has stripped them of opportunities to go through critical situations and learn from them.
That lack of cohesion or firm plan of attack involving the two stars was obvious as the Pelicans’ offense collapsed in the waning moments. Houston closed the game on an 11-3 run, as Rockets forward Dillon Brooks used his physicality to repeatedly disrupt the Pelicans’ late-game offense, leading to a comedy of errors. In the Pels’ final five possessions of the game, they turned it over three times, and Ingram forced up contested 3-pointers from the top of the key on the other two without Williamson touching the ball.
The Pelicans’ stars did manage to pull off one play that could be a blueprint for success moving forward. Zion drove from the top of the key, drew two defenders before kicking it to Ingram in the corner for an open 3 that put the Pels up 98-93 with 2:55 left. Those who are optimistic about what the Zion-Ingram pairing may accomplish in the future can point to a play like this as an example of why it can work.
But that basket ended up being the Pelicans’ final field goal of the night. Meanwhile, Houston’s Fred VanVleet, who had been held in check for most of the game, buried two 3s in the final two minutes to bring the Rockets back.
What stood out as much as the Pelicans’ overall lack of execution in the fourth quarter was the shortage of plays that used Ingram and Williamson together. Outside of that one Ingram 3, plays often began with one New Orleans star at the top of the key directing the offense while the other was parked in the corner. That bailed the Rockets’ defense out and allowed a defensive force like Brooks to put his imprint on the game.
“They did a great job of being physical, climbing into our guys, scratching, clawing and not allowing us to catch the ball. That’s what teams are going to do, especially against the really good teams,” Green said. “We’ve got to take care of the ball and get quality looks. If we do that, maybe the outcome is different.”
Brandon Ingram faces his toughest opponent: himself
This problem falls on Ingram, Williamson and the coaching staff. Each deserves part of the blame. With the amount of attention both garner from opposing defenses whenever they have the ball, it makes sense to use them together in screening actions or in some other movement away from the ball to try and force the defense into a mistake.
Overall, in the 130 minutes Ingram and Williamson have shared the court this season, the Pelicans have been outscored by 23 points. They’ve posted a 101.9 offensive rating in that time, a shockingly low number for a team that came into the season intent on being more explosive on offense.
One hundred and 30 minutes is a relatively low sample size, and there were signs of improvement earlier in Friday’s loss before things went sour late. Even with the fourth-quarter collapse, New Orleans outscored Houston by six points with Williamson and Ingram on the floor. Ingram finished with a season-high 31 points, and Zion was one point shy of his season-high with 24 points. Ingram, in particular, looked better than he has at any point this season with his shot making and creation off the dribble.
Williamson admitted Friday he is still adjusting to a system that’s quite different from what the Pelicans have done in recent years, but his performance should improve as he finds his rhythm and grows more comfortable.
“Last year, I was able to facilitate a lot more,” Williamson said. “This year, it’s kind of like taking a backseat a little bit and letting everybody else get in their rhythm and being unselfish.”
As disappointing as Friday’s result was for New Orleans, injuries certainly played a key factor in the result and put Green behind the 8-ball with some of his coaching decisions. Along with Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall, who have yet to play a minute this season, the Pelicans were also without CJ McCollum (partially collapsed lung) and Herb Jones (fibula).
This left the Pelicans spectacularly undermanned in the backcourt. Their two starters at guard, Dyson Daniels and Jordan Hawkins, had combined for just 17 starts in their careers coming into Friday. While both have performed well while playing more than expected early this season, they were asked to do too much against Houston. Each played a career-high 41 minutes in the defeat, which is a lot to ask of any young guard, let alone a couple young guys who are still finding themselves.
After his lack of production during the start of the season, Kira Lewis was removed from the rotation. Green turned to two-way guard Dereon Seabron as the only backcourt help coming off the bench, but his new shift didn’t last long. After a rough first half from Seabron, Green elected to play Hawkins and Daniels nearly every minute of the second half. While Daniels played solidly overall, his inexperience stood out at the end of the game as New Orleans struggled to get into sets. It’s hard not to think the outcome would’ve been different if McCollum, Alvarado or even Marshall was on the floor in the final minutes to calm the offense down.
“CJ’s presence was definitely missed,” Williamson admitted.
The lack of trustworthy ballhandling was an issue for much of the night as the Pelicans handed the Rockets easy points over and over again. The Rockets outscored the Pelicans by a whopping 27-4 margin on points off turnovers, and New Orleans finished with a season-low 12 assists as a team. Five of those assists were credited to Ingram.
While Marshall and Alvarado are both nearing a return, the length of McCollum’s absence remains unclear as he recovers. With the team’s unquestioned veteran leader and, by far, the most talented guard on the roster out, the pressure will continue to increase on Daniels, Hawkins, Jones and Lewis to replace all the little things McCollum does to keep the offense on track.
“We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be better with the turnovers down the stretch. That was the difference in the game,” Green said. “We’ve kind of had that up-and-down throughout the course of the year. We’ll continue to get better there.”
Having a healthy roster will help, especially in the backcourt, but that may be a reality this team never gets to experience. Until then, it falls on Williamson and Ingram to pick up the slack. And while they were both good on Friday night – perhaps even better than they’ve been all season – it still wasn’t enough.
Their performances will improve, and as they get better, so will the Pelicans. But the focus for Ingram and Williamson can’t be on the things they want to do individually to get back in their respective comfort zones. Both of them have to put more effort into being effective together, which they were not in the crucial moments against Houston.
“Our communication has gotten a lot better on the court,’” Williamson said. “We’re definitely both unselfish. But we’ve got to be able to do it more fluently and smooth in the new offense.”
(Top photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)