LAS VEGAS – Beating the Sacramento Kings for a third time this season was one thing, but now it gets serious for the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Pelicans played very good basketball, for the most part, to defeat the Kings and advance to the semifinals of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. However, “very good basketball” might not be enough to get past the LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers to move on to Saturday’s championship game.
The Pels are 8-4 over their last 12 games as they’ve climbed back up to eighth in the Western Conference standings. During that stretch they’ve beaten the Mavericks, Nuggets, Kings (3x), Clippers, and 76ers; teams that are a combined 19 games above .500.
They are as healthy as they’ve been all season with their starting lineup intact and only Larry Nance Jr. missing from the main bench rotation.
New Orleans is 5-1 this season, including their last three in a row, with the starting five of CJ, BI, Zion, Herb, and JV. Over their last three games, they have a net rating of 8.9, sixth-best amongst all lineups with at least 40 minutes played during that period.
However, the Lakers playing some of their best basketball as of late, having won seven of their last 10 on the way to Las Vegas. Los Angeles, even with James and Davis, hasn’t been great on offense. The Lakers do have one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, posting a 108.7 defensive rating over their last 10 games, good for third in the league.
The Pelicans seem loose, and why shouldn’t they be. This tournament format is far more similar to what most of this roster has experienced when it comes to opportunities to “win something” than anything they’ve seen in the NBA.
Brandon Ingram said as much following Wednesday’s practice. “It feels like March Madness a little bit,” he said, “or an AAU team traveling, being in the same spot in Vegas (for multiple days to play a tournament).”
McCollum, who failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in his career after last season, sees value in the Pelicans playing on such a big stage.
“It was fun to play on the road in Sacramento against a really good team who has playoff experience,” said McCollum. “These are really good experiences for us as a young team to figure out how to execute, withstand runs, how to properly game-plan for an elimination game. All of those things will pay dividends for us.”
In the short term, the focus is on tonight, and the Lakers. The Pelicans have not had much success against LA as of late, losing three of four last season; though both teams are looking much different from the last time they met back on March 14. Neither Zion Williamson, nor Jose Alvarado were available for that 15-point loss in the Smoothie King Center, and Dyson Daniels was a rookie still finding his way. Josh Richardson was the Pels’ top scoring option off the bench.
The Pelicans have a new look, and a building a new swagger. It will put fully to the test against the hated Lakers.
Keys to Victory
Start strong. The Pelicans cannot get off to a slow start and fall behind by double-digits against the Lakers as they did against the Kings. Though the game is being played in Las Vegas, expect to see plenty of purple and gold in the stands. Though the young Pelicans have shown their resilience at various point of the season, this is no ordinary regular season game.
Expect playoff-type intesity and playoff-level officiating. New Orleans can’t be rattled or dig a hole against a very good defensive Lakers team. If no one else on the Lakers roster is committed to winning the first NBA Cup, it’s LeBron James. He’ll be prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. The question is whether or not the Pelicans can match that intensity from the opening tip.
Keep Zion Moving. Zion Williamson is one of the most effecient interior scorers we’ve ever seen when he’s at his best, but he does struggle against length. The Lakers have length. After posting 10 points, six boards, six assists, and three steals against the Kings, all eyes will be on Zion to have a much more impactful scoring night versus Los Angeles. Expect Zion to see plenty of minutes at the small-ball center position after the Pelicans were a +15 against the Kings. Williamson could then attack players like Davis and Hayes off the dribble and potentially get to the free throw line.
So far, Zion is posting a career-low number of attempts within three feet of the rim. After taking an average of 68.6 percent of his shots at the bucket over his first 114 games, Z is down to 55 percent over the first 18 games of this season. Those few feet have also brought down his field goal percentage to a career-low 56.9 percent. Though Zion isn’t at 100 percent, when he’s got a head of steam he’s still one of the most difficult players in the NBA to stop. New Orleans has to keep Zion on the move so the Lakers’ bigs can’t track him easily.
Execute late. It should be no surprise that a team with LeBron James does well in clutch minutes. The Lakers are 8-3 in clutch games this season, posting a 23.8 net rating in those situations. Their defense becomes stifling, with LA leading the league in clutch defense (93.8). The Pelicans are just 4-5 in clutch games this season, with offense being their biggest problem during the final minutes. New Orleans’ 85.7 offensive rating in the clutch is third-worst in the NBA, outpacing only the lowly Wizards and Pistons. This will be a tremendous test of the Pels’ ability to stay focused and in the moment.
Can Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson close out a quality opponent when it really matters? We’re all about to find out.
Most Recent Starting Lineups
|New Orleans Pelicans
|Los Angeles Lakers
|G – CJ McCollum
|G –D’Angelo Russell
|G – Herbert Jones
|G – Taurean Prince
|F – Brandon Ingram
|F – Cam Reddish
|F – Zion Williamson
|F – LeBron James
|C – Jonas Valanciunas
|C – Anthony Davis
New Orleans Pelicans: Larry Nance Jr. (right rib fracture) and Matt Ryan (right elbow soreness) are Out
Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis (groin/hip) and Jarred Vanderbilt (heel) are Probable, LeBron James (calf) is Questionable, and Gabe Vincent (knee) is Out
Who: New Orleans Pelicans (12-10) vs Los Angeles Lakers (13-9)
- Dec. 7: at Las Vegas (In-Season Tournament semifinal)
- Dec. 31: at New Orleans
- Feb. 9: at LA Lakers
- Apr. 14: at New Orleans
Where: T-Mobile Arena
When: Dec. 7, 8:00 PM CT
Where to watch: TNT
Where to listen: WRNO 99.5
- In-Season Tournament Preview: Pelicans Get Rare Opportunity To Play With High Stakes Versus Kings
- Pelicans Look Like a Good Bet to Advance to Vegas
- Zion Williamson, Pelicans Appear Poised For Big Rise In The West
- Rookie Hawkins Has Impressed By Proving To Be More Than A Shooter
- Dyson Daniels displaying impressive growth after rough season start
- Jordan Hawkins’ Time Is Now For New Orleans Pelicans
- Brandon Ingram: Can He Elevate From All-Star to All-NBA?
- Matt Ryan: Great Story of Perseverance Now Also Pelicans’ 3-point Back-up Plan
- A Lot On Herb: Jones Remains Keystone of Pelicans Defense
- New Orleans Pelicans Better Positioned to Handle Adversity