Pelicans Have to Rediscover Defensive Intensity Before Postseason Play Begins

The New Orleans Pelicans’ end to the regular season has been rocky, with the Pels losing five of their last seven games, all but one to playoff teams. Over that stretch, New Orleans’ defensive rating plummeted to 24th (117.0) compared to fifth (111.9) across the season’s entirety. Why are the Pelicans letting up defensively right before the postseason?

As always, the Pelicans give up tons of threes to their opponents. This is what New Orleans does — they shoot gaps aggressively and take away drives to the paint in favor of hopefully contested triples. But during this stretch, teams are shooting lights out against the Pels. Normally, opponents shoot 34.8% from deep against New Orleans. But during this stretch, they’re hitting a scorching 39.2% of triples.

Allowing easy penetration is the root of this defensive issue, as New Orleans normally excels at stopping drive-and-kick offense. Offenses have too easy a time attacking the Pels’ centers especially, who struggle to limit drives. Great pull-up shooters like Devin Booker force point-of-attack defenders to fight over screens hard, leaving the paint open for drive and kicks.

Especially against Jonas Valanciunas at center, opposing offenses attack the paint with their more mobile centers. Orlando set up their pick and rolls with the spacing stacked to one side, forcing the weak side defender — in this case Herb Jones — to decide. Jones doesn’t want to abandon Franz Wagner (who wisely spaces up) so Wendell Carter can run free to the hoop.

Trey Murphy has struggled as of late on these long closeouts and rotations, as teams are taking advantage with long cuts and skips to his assignment. And with CJ McCollum playing off of the ball most of the time, he’s not equipped to provide low-man help when cracks emerge.

At the time of writing this, the Pelicans have dropped to the seventh seed and would have to fight their way out of the play-in. Cleaning up their paint deterrence will be especially critical for returning to top defensive form before the playoffs. Brandon Ingram returning to good health will be key, though New Orleans needs their defense to win in the second season. Ending the season strong on the defensive end to build more momentum against a few more playoff contenders should be a priority for the Pelicans now.

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

Keys to Victory

The Pelicans and Trail Blazers have played 74 times in their history, with each grabbing 37 victories in the series. While Portland’s season effectively ended some time ago, the Pelicans can’t take them lightly.

Tonight’s game precedes a Thursday/Friday back-to-back with the currently eighth-seeded Sacramento Kings and 10th-seeded Golden State Warriors.

This is the Pelicans’ last game against a sub-.500 team. New Orleans is 22-10 against losing teams this season, including a 12-4 (.750) record on the road. They’ve also had Portland’s number as of late, winning five in a row against the Blazers, and eight of their last nine.

A win Tuesday night would also bring this season’s Pelicans into a tie for the franchise record for road wins in a season (26), set by the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets.

New Orleans has also won three straight on the road after their gutsy win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday behind an exceptional effort from Zion WIlliamson. Williamson finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, with a career-high five blocked shots.

CJ McCollum, who has been logging heavy minutes in the absence of Brandon Ingram scored a team-high 31 points on very efficient shooting (12-22 FGA, 7-12 3PA). New Orleans is 6-2 when McCollum scores at least 30 points this season.

What’s in going to take to top the Blazers one more time?

Slow down Deandre. Deandre Ayton has had an up and down career since being picked with the number one overall selection in the 2018 NBA draft. After making it to the finals with Phoenix, he was effectively exiled to Portland for complaining about his role. His skill has never been in question, but his motor has. Lately, it’s firing on all cylinders. Over his last 12 games Ayton has averaged 23.9 points and 13.3 rebouds while shooting nearly 58 percent from the floor. After failing to score 30 points in any of his first 40 games, he’s posted 30 or more four times during this stretch. Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. can expect to have their hands full tonight.

Shoot the 3. The Pelicans have played 78 games this season. In 26 of those they’ve failed to attempt at least 30 three-pointers, earning a 10-16 record (.384). In all other games, they are 36-16 (.692).

In their two previous wins over the Blazers, they’ve gone 23-60 from long distance (.383). The attempts provide the balance that opens up driving lanes for Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum, while making Jonas Valanciunas more effective as a scorer and passer from the low post. In snapping their three-game losing streak on Sunday, the Pels shot 39 triples, the most since launching 49 in a blowout victory over the Toronto Raptors last month.

Three-Point AttemptsWinsLossesWin %

Don’t Look Ahead. The Pelicans could be tempted to look past Portland, a team that they’ve beaten by by a combined 30 points over their first two matchups. They should fight that temptation at all costs. Their final three games are against playoff contenders, and dropping a “gimme” at this stage of the season could be devastating to their hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament. The Pelicans must show focus and discipline early and give the Blazers one more reason to start thinking about the offseason.

Most Recent Starting Lineups

New Orleans PelicansPortland Trail Blazers
G – CJ McCollumG – Scoot Henderson
G – Herb JonesG – Rayan Rupert
F – Trey MurphyF – Kris Murray
F – Zion WilliamsonF – Jabari Walker
C – Jonas ValanciunasC – Deandre Ayton


New Orleans Pelicans: Naji Marshall (left shoulder contusion) is DOUBTFUL. Brandon Ingram (left knee bone contusion) are OUT.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jerami Grant (hamstring), Shaedon Sharpe (abdomen), Anfernee Simons (knee), and Matisse Thybulle (ankle) are Day to Day. Malcolm Brogdon (elbow), Toumani Camara (rib fracture), and Robert Williams III (knee surgery) are OUT.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (46-32) at Portland Trail Blazers (21-57)

Season Series

  • Feb. 10: Pelicans def. Trail Blazers, 93-84
  • Mar. 16: Pelicans def. Trail Blazers, 126-107
  • Apr. 9: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers

Where: Moda Center

When: Apr. 9, 9:00 PM CDT

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

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