Will Pelicans Look Inside For Advantage Vs Thunder in Game 2?

Size and interior play marked the story of the Pelicans’ narrow game-one loss to the Thunder on the road. Even without Zion Williamson, OKC struggled with the Pelicans’ size and physicality. However, the Thunder’s 5-out offense stretched out Jonas Valanciunas and the Pels elected to close the game with Larry Nance Jr. at the five. What will they do going forward in the series?

The offensive rebounding advantage was notable, with New Orleans winning 18 to eight. With Valanciunas on the floor, OKC struggled to contain the Pelicans’ offense. Nobody on the Thunder roster has the girth to box out Valanciunas consistently or handle the likes of Naji Marshall and Herb Jones flying in for board.

New Orleans’ most potent offensive group — CJ-Naji-Trey-Ingram-Jones — put up 1.4 points per possession on a small sample. Both teams struggled offensively but the Pelicans fared better with Valanciunas than Nance on offense in game one. Despite Chet Holmgren’s defensive greatness, he can’t bang with a 265 seven-footer.

Valanciunas’s offensive advantages weren’t enough for Willie Green to comfortably close with him. Larry Nance Jr. played the five for the final six minutes aside from a few rebound-only lineups toward the end. Among the Pelicans’ most common lineups, Nance at the five (along with CJ, Jones, Murphy and Ingram) brought the most defensive success.

This makes sense, as the Thunder built their 5-out offense to exploit slow-footed centers. Holmgren’s speed and agility can be too much for JV to contain and he gave up lots of wide-open threes, many of which OKC missed. 

With Nance on the floor, the Pels can switch ball screens and deny driving advantages to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams. Nance helped stymie the Thunder’s spread attack in the fourth quarter. Take this possession for example: the Pels switch Nance onto Williams which denies an advantage. Nance then digs on Shai’s drive, forcing a turnover.

Balancing the centers’ minutes will be key for the Pelicans to keep this series competitive. OKC’s scoring output was putrid compared to their normal success, largely due to Nance at the five lineups enabling the Pelicans’ wings to game-wreck like they can.

But in an offensive slugfest like game one, the Pelicans may need to turn to Valanciunas and his offense. Ingram is hobbled and McCollum looks overtaxed as a primary creator. Valanciunas generates strong offense against a stagnant defense more easily than anyone else. Green may need to lean into him and accept his defensive limitations late in close games. New Orleans proved they can hang with this Thunder team without their best player. In a series as scrappy as this, lineup and rotation adjustments can make the difference.

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

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