Lonzo Ball takes a shot over Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas

Pelicans hope to return to early-2020 form in critical game vs. Grizzlies

by Jim Eichenhofer

Saturday’s loss to the LA Clippers went sideways so quickly that it was difficult to locate anything to build on within New Orleans’ performance, particularly from the first three quarters. With that mind, the Pelicans coaching staff adopted a positive-reinforcement technique while selecting 2019-20 game film for players to view during Sunday’s practice in Orlando.

“One of the things we did was show a lot of positive things we did over the course of the last 40 games we played before the hiatus came,” fifth-year Alvin Gentry said of a stretch that was capped by a 21-13 record. “We saw ball movement, we saw good defense, good team defense. We showed a lot of that today, because I think it’s important. Obviously we have some big games coming up. We’ve got to play great basketball.”

After a heartbreaking Thursday loss to Utah and Saturday’s drubbing by LA, the Pelicans need to return to the style of play and effectiveness they showed in January, February and March, as quickly as possible. First-time All-Star forward Brandon Ingram is fond of saying it’s important for the Pelicans to play with a “sense of urgency,” a phrase that has perhaps never been more applicable than right now. The pack of Western Conference teams chasing eighth-place Memphis entered Disney likely realizing that a 6-2 record might be necessary to have an opportunity to earn a spot in the 8/9 play-in round. That means that after an 0-2 start, New Orleans (28-38) may already be out of second chances.

“(We are) just trying to get back to playing how we were before the break. It starts (Monday). It’s basically a must-win game for us,” point guard Lonzo Ball said of a 5:30 p.m. matchup vs. the Grizzlies. “We’ve got to give it our all tomorrow.”

Two of the Pelicans’ best wins from early in the 2020 calendar year came against Memphis, highlighted by a 139-111 runaway on Jan. 31 in the Smoothie King Center. Eleven days earlier, New Orleans went into FedEx Forum, built a big lead and posted a 126-116 road victory.

“Defensively, we were really good in those games,” Gentry said. “We did a good job offensively of playing in space, being able to create shots by dribble penetration. That’s the way we’ll have to play them again. They do a lot of switching. We’ll have to make sure we’re taking advantage of the switches. Not to the point of just trying to post the ball and forcing it in (the paint), but playing in space and having a good flow to our offense.’

Ball said Sunday that the Pelicans’ “flow” has been lacking in the two restart games, which has led to a combined 39 turnovers. Taking better care of the ball is an area New Orleans must improve Monday, as well as during the rest of its stay in Central Florida.

“Based off the film you can tell that we are two different teams, compared to what we were before the break and how we are now,” Ball said. “Whatever we’ve got to do to get to how we were playing before, we’ve got to do it, whether that’s mentally or watching more film. We’ve got to put it all together tomorrow.”

Zion Williamson has been limited to a total of 29 minutes in the two seeding games, approximately what he averaged for one game in his previous 19 appearances. It’s uncertain whether his workload will increase in Monday’s game.

“It’s tough because as soon as I break that sweat, the horn goes off for me (to sub out),” Williamson said of being on the court for short bursts. He added that he’s trying to keep a positive outlook, because that’s what’s best for him and the Pelicans.

“If I get frustrated, that doesn’t help the situation,” the 20-year-old said. “I try to look at it from a different perspective. While I’m out there, what can I do to contribute?”

After Saturday’s 23-point loss to the Clippers, Williamson said he and his teammates understood the need to turn the page as quickly as possible to Monday.

“The mood in the locker room was it’s a loss, but we’ve got to move on and focus on the next game,” he said. “Worry about getting the win.”

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