Five Plays You Might Like: Suns vs. Pelicans, by Sam Butler

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The Pelicans came out following a disappointing loss to Sacramento and played their best game of the season, holding the Suns at arms length throughout the second half of a 123–101 victory.

New Orleans looked different last night — in personnel, in shooting, and in defensive effort. Willy Hernangomez saw significant minutes off the bench and took full advantage of them, showing palpable hustle on defense with a steady demeanor — contrasting sharply with Jaxson Hayes’ more frantic, chaotic, (flail-y?) style of defense.

Lonzo Ball provided a solid shooting night to help space the floor for the Pels, who always seem to perform better when Lonzo shows up on offense. Lonzo shoots 46.1% from three in Pelicans wins, compared to 26% in losses. As Zo goes, so go the Pelicans.

Defensive effort was another key for the Pelicans in this win, and that effort could be seen in everyone on the floor. It seems like a given to expect professional athletes to exert effort, but it’s something the Pelicans struggle with — particularly on nights where their shots aren’t falling. That was not an issue tonight though, as you’ll see in some of these…

Five Plays You Might Like

  1. Quarter 2, 11:10. Pelicans on Offense

Context: The Pelicans got an early lead, but the game is close and the Suns and Pelicans are going back and forth scoring.

What happens:

This play highlights one of the key differences for the Pelicans tonight: personnel. JJ Redick is back on the floor after a few games off, presumably because the Pelicans couldn’t find a suitable trade to move him to a contender.

Whatever the reason, the Pelicans used it to their advantage. This clip is the third play in a row that the Pelicans ran during this stretch where the main action was JJ and Zion working in the two-man game.

First, Hernangomez sets a down screen to free Zion for the catch at the top of the key, before relocating to the dunker spot just off of the low block. JJ comes up from under the basket and sets a ball screen for Zion. The Suns gladly switch, not willing to risk a mix up where JJ could find himself open from three. With the smaller Abdel Nader on him, Zion goes to work, spinning his way to the rim for a lay up. Kaminsky peels off of Hernangomez to help contest, but Zion is such a good finisher that it doesn’t matter. Even if Zion hadn’t finished, Hernangomez was now free for an offensive rebound and putback, since Kaminsky committed to help.

2. Quarter 3, 51 seconds. Pelicans on Offense

Context: The Pelicans had been growing a lead to this point, keeping the Suns at a distance. This third quarter was a strong one for the Pelicans offensively, as they dropped 40 points — their second best scoring quarter this season.

What happens:

Again, the Pelicans are in the midst of running the JJ and Zion two-man game several plays in a row. The prior play resulted in a lob to a Zion dunk, but in this one JJ is the beneficiary.

Zion brings the ball up the floor, (something he did more often than usual tonight) and goes right into a JJ ball screen. This time, what happens is pretty simple. The Suns double team Zion, and leave JJ Redick, 15th all time in three pointers made, open for three.

The Pelicans last play of the third quarter was the same look, resulting in JJ being fouled by the screener defender and getting two free throws. Then, to open the fourth quarter, the Pelicans have JJ screen for Zion in the middle of the floor. Look, a bonus play:

This play look familiar? It’s the same as Play 1, with the same result. The Suns switch the screen, not willing to leave JJ open like they just did, but in doing so now have Langston Galloway guarding Zion. What’s worse, Cam Johnson can’t help effectively from the nail on Zion’s subsequent drive, because doing so would leave JJ open again. Zion is able to get by Galloway and finish over Ayton, with Hernangomez again waiting for a potential uncontested putback.

Two-man actions between Zion and JJ are something I expect to see more of over the course of the season. When you have the game’s top paint scorer and one of the game’s best three point shooters involved, their defenders can’t commit too much to help each other since if you give either player just a bit of space, they can take full advantage. Defenses will switch, and typically you don’t want the guy you had guarding JJ (probably small and quick) guarding Zion (large and quick).

3. Quarter 3, 8:20. Pelicans on Offense

Context: Rewind to earlier in the third quarter for this play. The Pelicans have a small lead, but they need to continue hitting on their shots to keep the Suns at a comfortable distance.

What happens:

This is a fun out of bounds play that showcases Lonzo’s shooting, which was another key to the Pelicans’ victory.

The foul was drawn by Zion, who’d gotten an early seal down low and drew a hold on Cam Johnson (this was the second play in a row he’d done this).

The Suns are all jumbled up before the play disguising their defense, but as the referee hands the ball to Ingram, they space out into a 2–3 zone look to guard the inbound.

Steven Adams smartly finds himself uncovered in the zone, since Bledsoe has drawn Chris Paul away from the action. After Adams gets the inbound, he hands it right back to Ingram. Because of Bledsoe’s positioning, Chris Paul can’t guard Ingram, so Bridges is forced to come up out of the corner to guard him. Ingram finds Lonzo in the now empty corner, who knocks down his wide open corner three.

This quick, simple play crumpled the Suns’ attempt at a zone, and Lonzo made them pay by making his shot. And give Lonzo bonus points for this one, because if you watch him at the beginning of the play, he’s the one who tells Bledsoe to go toward half court and take Chris Paul out of the play.

4. Quarter 3, 12:00. Pelicans on Defense

Context: Right out of half, the Pelicans have a narrow lead. Usually, the Pelicans struggle to give effort on defense unless they’ve got a lead already. But not here!

What happens:

The thing that jumps out on this defensive possession is Brandon Ingram’s awareness and deflections. On this possession, BI deflects the ball twice, first leading to a Zion foul, and the second time sending it out of bounds. Finally, he closes the possession with a block and defensive rebound.

This possession is representative of Ingram’s effort all night on defense. Ingram had seven deflections in this game, per NBA.com, which makes up nearly a quarter of the 29 he has this season to date. Getting this kind of defensive effort from your stars is vital for a team, and it inspires that level of effort in teammates all the way down the roster.

When you watch this play again you’ll see everyone on the floor for the Pelicans working hard. Zion keeping up with his man, Adams helping and recovering, and Lonzo communicating with others while staying tight on Devin Booker. This level of effort is not a common sight for the Pelicans, especially in a close game.

5. Quarter 3, 1:50. Pelicans on Defense

Context: The Pelicans have a small lead, and a bench unit is in.

What happens:

There are a lot of bench players on the floor for the Pelicans on this possession. This usually spells disaster for the Pelicans’ defense, especially when the lone starter on the floor is Zion, who’s not exactly a plus defender.

But watch the effort on display. NAW sets the tone by pressing E’twaun Moore and staying close to him all the way up the floor. For the Suns, Galloway sets a down screen on Zion, which is followed by a Cam Johnson ghost screen into a flare off of a Kaminsky screen. But Zion chugs along through these three actions, staying close to Johnson and preventing a shot. Hernangomez does a good job letting Zion through initially, and again when Kaminsky and Johnson run a fake dribble hand-off. Mikal Bridges has fled the strong side corner, but if you watch Josh Hart, you can see him keeping his eye on the ball the whole time, ready to help.

Hart manages to provide help without losing track of Bridges, who can’t get the ball under the rim, and instead gets a handoff from Kaminsky and uses him as a ball screen. Off of the screen, though, NAW is ready to help from the nail, as is JJ under the rim. Hernangomez meets Bridges at the level of the screen, containing his drive, and forcing a pass. Hart, stuck behind Bridges, pressures him from the back, while having the awareness to peel off at the last moment and knock away the wrap around pass to Kaminsky. Again you see the effort from NAW, who dives on the loose ball (though he probably could have just picked it up).

The Pelicans displayed great team defense here, with a line-up almost entirely of bench players. The Suns didn’t exactly have a star studded offensive line-up on the floor themselves, but still — this level of effort from the Pelicans will be key for them moving forward, if they can maintain it.

Closing Thoughts:

Watching this game back, it’s clear the three x-factors for the Pelicans were Redick and Hernangomez’s solid play off the bench, Lonzo’s contributions on offense, and the Pelicans overall level of defensive effort. While the Pels’ win over the Bucks took an unsustainable level of three point shot-making, this win feels more repeatable for the Pelicans. Time will tell if they can keep the defensive effort up, or if that too wasn’t sustainable for this group.

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