When The Levees Broke: OKC Demolishes Pelicans Defense In Game 2 Rout

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans finished the 2023-24 season with the sixth-rated defense (111.9) in the NBA for the second straight season. Yet their regular season production didn’t hold up on Wednesday night, as the Oklahoma City Thunder exploited all their weaknesses in a 32-point rout. 

In Game Two, the Pelicans were confronted with the center conundrum that has reared its ugly had at different times; Jonas Valanciunas may be their most effective one-on-one scoring option, but he’s just as exploitable on the defensive end. Despite scoring the first 11 points for the Pels, the Thunder repeatedly targeted Valanciunas, forcing the plodding center to guard in space. 

Through two playoff games, the Pelicans have allowed an atrocious 124.8 defensive rating with Valanciunas on the floor. That dropped to an elite 108.2 figure with him off the floor.

Take these three plays from the first quarter for example, where OKC picked on Valanciunas with whoever he guarded. They cut and moved, forcing Valancinuas out of the paint and asking him to cover ground, which he doesn’t have the foot speed to do.

Chet Holmgren’s presence on the perimeter only exacerbated these issues, as he can punish JV with pick-and-pop threes and easy blowbys. This effectively neutralized the offensive advantage Valanciunas has over Holmgren, as Chet still holds his own on the defensive end despite his lack of weight. By my count, six of Chet’s buckets/fouls drawn came at the expense of Jonas.

To compensate for Valanciunas, the Pelicans needed to be much sharper in their backline rotations than they were in Game Two. Brandon Ingram’s effort level sat low for much of the game and CJ McCollum couldn’t offer much help due to his lack of size. And even when the Pelicans did rotate early to cover the paint, the Thunder came ready with counter after counter.

Oklahoma City deserves credit for honing in on the Pelicans’ limitations. They adjusted to the Pelicans’ wall-building and hard switching against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from Game One, sending their guards to the bucket instead of their normal ghosts to the perimeter. Without any secondary rim protection outside of Herb Jones (who guarded Shai on the ball), Jalen Williams constantly attacked big creases downhill and finished without resistance.

Gilgeous-Alexander is the level of player who transcends defensive game-planning. Even when everything is right, he can still carve defenses. The Pelicans tried switching, blitzing and even zone defense. None were effective on Wednesday night. If the Pels want to steal a game, they’ll need to be diligent in keeping a wing as the low man and pre-rotating even earlier. 

In Game Two, the young Thunder punched back. They adjusted their drive and kick offense to counter the Pelicans’ aggressive, swarming defense. The Pelicans must counter with the ability to lean on that defense to keep this series alive with a win in Saturday’s Game Three.

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

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