Nickeil Alexander-Walker takes a layup at Utah

Pelicans shootaround update presented by Entergy: Elite chemistry making Jazz tough to beat

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

A goal for every NBA team is to develop the kind of cohesiveness the Utah Jazz have already built over a multi-season span, relying on a core group to gel into a unit currently dominating at both ends of the floor. While describing what’s made Utah (27-7) the NBA’s premier team this season, New Orleans reserve guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker complimented the Jazz’s chemistry, something the Pelicans would love to achieve in the future with more time together on the court.

“They move the ball really well, they play together, and like Steven (Adams) said, they’ve been together so long,” Alexander-Walker said of the Jazz after Monday’s morning shootaround. “They know each other through and through. You feel the chemistry when they play, offensively and defensively. They all play for each other. You can tell when someone’s getting theirs, they look for that guy. It’s all about what helps Utah.”

Seeking a season-series sweep over New Orleans tonight, Utah hurt the Pelicans from all angles during Jan. 19 and 21 home victories in the Beehive State. The Jazz have numerous perimeter shooting threats in their rotation, something the Pelicans must account for on defense.

“Basketball is a team sport. Usually the best team will always win,” Alexander-Walker said. “Of course, they have talent and they’re a team, so that makes it even harder to beat. Someone mentioned it earlier, that only their bigs are shooting under 37 percent from three. They can really shoot the ball.”

Other notes from Monday shootaround:

Alexander-Walker shot 2/2 from three-point range Saturday for six points against San Antonio. In the five games he’s played this season immediately following a DNP, he’s a total of 12/21 from the field, or 57 percent. The Toronto native has often been in a situation where his role is uncertain from game to game, particularly with fellow second-unit guard JJ Redick’s injury status fluctuating lately.

“You can’t get tired of doing good every day,” Alexander-Walker said of his mindset when his role is not guaranteed. “Working every day helps me stay ready. Not really focusing on circumstance, but allowing myself to improve in some way, shape or form. So that when the time comes, I am prepared. You never know when that’s going to be in this league. That’s one thing I’ve learned, that I can’t waver in what I do.” …

Zion Williamson provided a much-discussed quote Saturday about the Pelicans being “close” to breaking through as a team, following two narrow road defeats to the Bucks and Spurs, quality opponents. Asked if he agrees with Williamson’s assessment, Alexander-Walker said, “We showed a little glimpse of it early, but I definitely do think we are (close). As a team, we want it for each other. There is no selfishness on our team and everyone’s happy for each other. We have the right pieces. It’s just kind of putting it together and allowing things to form the right way.”


Utah scouting report

Offensive efficiency rank: 3 (117.0)

Defensive efficiency rank: 3 (107.5)

Net rating: 1 (+9.5)

Streak: Won 1

Go-to guy: All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell has increased his scoring average every season of his career, including putting up 24.5 per game in 2020-21. The Louisville product was a slow starter this winter at 34 percent from the field and 30 percent on threes in December, but he’s at 38 percent on treys in February and scoring 26.8 points a night this month. Utah is 20-5 when he scores 20-plus points.

On the rise: Reserve forward Georges Niang recently produced one of the best games of his pro career, going 7/7 from three-point range vs. Charlotte on Feb. 22, accounting for all of his 21 points in a 22-point rout of the Hornets. On Saturday in Orlando, the Iowa State product went 3/5 from deep and tallied 13 points. In his four seasons with Utah, Niang has somewhat quietly shot 39 percent from three-point range.

Previous game starting lineups

UTAH (27-7)

Saturday win at Orlando

Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert

Notes: This group is 7-0, including wins over the Clippers, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Mike Conley has started 27 games at point guard, but sat out Saturday due to injury recovery management. Conley was not listed on Sunday’s injury update, making him officially available to play vs. the Pelicans. … Utah is 18-7 with its primary starting lineup.

NEW ORLEANS (14-19)

Saturday loss at San Antonio

Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams

Notes: This group is 12-15. Like the team overall, it has been much more successful at home, winning four of the last five games together in the Smoothie King Center. … Redick played the most minutes of any reserve Thursday at Milwaukee (26), but was sidelined by injury Saturday. Redick is listed as questionable for Monday’s game due to right hamstring tightness.

Pelicans keys to victory

DEFEND THE ARC

New Orleans has had well-documented problems stopping opponent three-point shooting, an area of intense focus against Utah, which ranks No. 1 in the NBA in three-point makes (16.9 per game) and third in percentage (39.6). The Jazz sank 38 treys during a two-game series sweep over the Pelicans in January, while totaling a whopping 247 points.

MOVE THE BALL

The recipe for offensive success in the NBA often includes dishing out 30 assists – or at least close to that number – but New Orleans only had 17 in Jan. 19 loss in Salt Lake City. The Pelicans upped that to 27 assists two days later in Vivint Arena, but the average of 22.0 over two games was far too low. New Orleans’ season low in that category is 15 vs. San Antonio on Dec. 27.

CENTERS OF ATTENTION

Adams and Utah’s Rudy Gobert have gotten well acquainted over the years, with both playing in the Northwest Division prior to Adams relocating to the Southwest this season. The old-school, low-post big men also faced off during the first round of the 2018 playoffs, with Utah prevailing in six games. Gobert had an 18-rebound game Jan. 19 vs. NOLA; two days later, Adams grabbed 16 boards against the Jazz.

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