Nickeil Alexander-Walker shoots over two Cleveland defenders

Pelicans shootaround update presented by Entergy: Defense, three-point shooting sparking recent 6-3 stretch

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

For many of those who follow the New Orleans Pelicans on a regular basis, a March 11 loss vs. struggling Minnesota was a frustrating evening that marked a low point in 2020-21. For guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the 30-point defeat served as a “reality check.”

Since dropping the first game after the All-Star break by a 135-105 margin to the Timberwolves, New Orleans has gone 6-3, improving in a range of areas. Perhaps most important among those upgrades is the team’s defense, which ranked No. 29 out of 30 NBA squads in the first half of the schedule, but is 12th since March 12.

“Being able to take pride in it,” Alexander-Walker said after Thursday shootaround of a key to defensive improvement. “That Minnesota game was kind of like a reality check, in a sense. That’s what it was to me. That feeling we had, we didn’t want to be there again. I think I speak for all of us when I say we understand what we need to do to win, and that’s defending. In order to make a playoff run, to make a push to try to get into that eighth spot, it’s definitely about getting stops. We’ve used that to our advantage.”

New Orleans has allowed 110.3 points per 100 possessions in the last nine games, highlighted by victories over both Los Angeles teams, Denver and Dallas, all plus-.500 West clubs. Prior to the midseason hiatus, the Pelicans were giving up 116.3 points per 100, ahead of only Sacramento (119.1).

Other notes after shootaround:

Zion Williamson (right thumb sprain) and Lonzo Ball (right hip flexor strain) are out vs. Orlando, while Ingram is doubtful. The Magic are without Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac due to season-ending injuries, while guards Cole Anthony and Gary Harris have also been out. …

Since mid-March, New Orleans is third in offensive efficiency (118.4) and seventh in three-point percentage. Alexander-Walker attributed the recent surge in perimeter accuracy to a series of factors.

“You have (Zion) who attracts (defensive attention),” he said. “You have Brandon (Ingram), who has always been a willing passer in double-teams. Guys are shooting the ball with confidence, taking their time, understanding the flow of the offense and shooting open shots, not turning down open shots. And the ball movement has been great. When you have all of those things come together, it puts us where we are right now.” …

New Orleans (21-25) has moved into striking distance of several West teams, just 1.5 games behind ninth-place Golden State (23-24) and 10th-place Memphis (22-23). The Warriors are at Miami and Toronto over the next two nights, while Memphis has a weekend back-to-back vs. Minnesota and at Philadelphia. It may be time for fans to go into scoreboard-watching mode, but Alexander-Walker indicated that he’s trying to keep tunnel vision on his own team.

“Personally for me, I block it out, because I’m the kind of guy who needs to focus on just what I can control – the team trying to win games,” he said. “But I know the team’s aware. We talk about what we need to do and where we’re at right now, and how we can get into those (playoff) spots. Looking at our schedule, understanding that we’ve got to go on a run, go on some streaks.”

In a scheduling oddity, of New Orleans’ remaining 26 games, 10 of them are against a group of five East teams, including Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and New York. Twelve of the next 14 games overall are interconference matchups.


ORLANDO SCOUTING REPORT

Offensive efficiency rank: 28 (105.3)

Defensive efficiency rank: 15 (111.6)

Net rating: 28 (-6.3)

Streak: Won 1

Go-to guy: In three games since the trade deadline and Orlando undergoing a major reshaping of the top of its roster, rookie forward Chuma Okeke and veteran wing Dwayne Bacon have been the Magic’s primary scoring threats, averaging 18.0 and 17.0 points, respectively. Auburn product Okeke has shown excellent three-point touch, going 8/15 from beyond the arc over the past week, while Florida State’s Bacon tallied 26 points in a narrow Sunday defeat at the Lakers.

On the rise: Orlando has numerous youngsters who are now getting their best opportunity to show what they can do in the NBA, including former lottery pick Mo Bamba, 22. The center from Texas is the Magic’s fourth-leading scorer over the past three games (11.3 ppg), while placing third in rebounding average (6.3). Bamba has posted double-figure scoring in three straight games for the first time in his three-year pro career.




PREVIOUS GAME STARTING LINEUPS

ORLANDO (16-31, 14TH IN EAST)

Tuesday win at LA Clippers

Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon, James Ennis III, Chuma Okeke, Khem Birch

Notes: This group is 1-1, losing 96-93 at the Lakers on Sunday, then beating the Clippers 103-96. … Orlando is in the midst of a very unusual road trip in which it went to California to play both Los Angeles teams, comes to Louisiana for Thursday’s game, then heads west again for a weekend back-to-back at Utah and Denver. … Orlando is 3.5 games behind 10th-place Chicago (19-27), which has lost five straight.

NEW ORLEANS (21-25, 12TH IN WEST)

Monday win at Boston

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams

Notes: This group is 5-1, including going 4-1 over the team’s past five games. … Williamson has only been sidelined for two games this season, losses at the Clippers and vs. the Heat. … Ball started 29 consecutive games prior to being out for the last five. … New Orleans is essentially tied for 11th in the West with Sacramento (22-26), but the Kings have a slightly better winning percentage. Sacramento is off Thursday, so that “tie” will be broken.




PELICANS KEYS TO VICTORY PRESENTED BY FANDUEL

BE READY TO ADJUST

New Orleans has done exemplary work filling in for Ball over the past five games, as Alexander-Walker and Eric Bledsoe have played some of their best basketball of 2020-21. Now the Pelicans have to replace some of what Williamson provides, with the All-Star forward ruled out.

STAY HOT FROM DEEP

New Orleans is coming off a 16/31 three-point shooting performance at Boston, a 51.6 percent rate that ranks third-highest among the club’s 46 games this season. The Pelicans are shooting 38.9 percent on treys since March 14, seventh in the NBA during that timeframe.

BELIEVE IN MAGIC

It would be a mistake to overlook an Orlando team that – despite trades of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, guard Evan Fournier and forward Aaron Gordon – has been highly competitive lately. The Magic are 1-2 since the trade deadline, with an aggregate scoring margin of just minus-3. On Tuesday, Orlando rallied from a 51-37 halftime deficit to beat the Clippers on their home floor, winning the second half 66-45.

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