When the New Orleans Pelicans were struggling defensively early in the season, a small change in December helped get them back on track.
The Pelicans decided to drop their bigs on pick-and-rolls more, and the team immediately saw an improvement on the court. From Dec. 17 to Jan. 21, the Pelicans were 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 109.0.
Once Zion Williamson made his debut on Jan. 22 against the team New Orleans faces Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs, the Pelicans’ defensive rating took a slight jump to 109.2. But from Williamson’s debut to March 11, when the season was suspended, they ranked eighth overall.
That’s why there was a reason to be optimistic about New Orleans’ defensive ability heading into the seeding games. But once the Pelicans made it to Florida, consistency has evaded them — New Orleans’ defense has been either OK or absolutely terrible — in part because of the number of 3-pointers the team is allowing.
The LA Clippers and Sacramento Kings combined to go 41-of-80 (51.3%) from long range while scoring 126 and 140 points, respectively, against New Orleans during the restart. Predictably, the Pelicans lost both of those games.
After each game, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said he didn’t think it was an effort issue and instead gave credit to the opposition for making tough shots.
But New Orleans looked engaged for the better part of the restart’s opening-night loss to the Utah Jazz and wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards (the first half against Washington could go either way). Their opponents’ shots weren’t falling. Those three teams combined to shoot 30-of-104 (28.8%) from long range.
In Friday’s game against Washington, the Pelicans also started to show a little bit more rim protection. After just seven blocks in their first four games, New Orleans blocked eight shots against Washington and went from the 15th-ranked team (out of 22) in rim protection to ninth in just one game.
So while the Pelicans search for consistency on the defensive end, they also hope Williamson can help. New Orleans allowed 164.3 points per 100 possessions in Williamson’s 15 minutes against the Jazz. Since then, the Pelicans have allowed 120.9 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor — sandwiched between Brandon Ingram (120.5) and Lonzo Ball (121.8) at the bottom of the Pelicans’ roster in that span.
Williamson has been quiet on the glass (10 defensive rebounds in 76 minutes) and he has yet to record a steal or block since the season restarted. Only Clippers backup big Patrick Patterson (91 minutes) has played more minutes than Williamson without a steal or block on the NBA campus.
For the Pelicans to have any chance to still make the playoffs, they’ll have to look like the team from the third quarter on Friday against the Wizards that was sparked by role players Frank Jackson and Nicolo Melli.
“Once you can handle it on the defensive end, it allows you to get out and run in transition and ultimately be more aggressive and kind of get them back on their heels as they’re trying to get back in transition on defense,” said Jackson, who was plus-30 in 20 minutes against the Wizards. “Once we get those stops, we just keep pushing the ball and try to get easy baskets.” — Andrew Lopez
Here’s the latest on the standings, the games to watch Sunday and Monday, plus everything you need to know. Check back here for highlights and updates throughout the day.
PAST BUBBLE INTEL: July 30 | July 31 | Aug. 1 | Aug. 2 | Aug. 3 | Aug. 4 | Aug. 5 | Aug. 6 | Aug. 7 | Aug. 8
Here is a look at Sunday’s clinching and elimination scenarios, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Sunday’s must-see games
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Toronto Raptors | 2 p.m. ET
It was a first for both teams on Friday in the bubble — Memphis picked up its first win while Toronto was dealt its first loss. The Grizzlies earned a much-needed victory over Oklahoma City to hold on to eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race. Meanwhile, the Raptors were crushed by the Celtics 122-100 — their largest margin of defeat this season.
Because of the quirks with seeding-game scheduling and the end of the regular season, this is the only meeting between Memphis and Toronto this season. Both teams will be wearing their classic uniforms for this game: Toronto in its original dino jerseys and Memphis with its teal Vancouver jerseys. — Andrew Lopez
San Antonio Spurs vs. New Orleans Pelicans | 3 p.m. ET on ABC
These two teams have met only once this season, in Williamson’s debut on Jan. 22. Despite Williamson’s 17-point outburst in a 3:08 stretch in the fourth quarter, San Antonio held on for a 121-117 victory. Originally, the teams were set to play three times over the final 14 games, including the regular-season finale. Instead, this is their only matchup on the NBA campus.
San Antonio is making a push for a playoff spot, while the Pelicans are just happy to be in the race after dropping three of their first five games in Florida. Williamson, who did not play against the Wizards on Friday on the second night of a back-to-back set, is expected to be available against San Antonio. — Lopez
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Portland Trail Blazers | 6:30 p.m. ET
Without Ben Simmons, Philadelphia seemingly sleepwalked through three quarters Friday before pulling away for the victory in the fourth against an Orlando squad that was missing Aaron Gordon (hamstring) and Jonathan Isaac (ACL). Philadelphia has been up and down in the bubble despite posting a 3-1 record, with a win over Washington and a victory over San Antonio despite a furious Spurs comeback.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are continuing their push to make the playoffs and turn up the pressure on the Grizzlies for the eighth seed. Portland will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. At the very least, Portland is putting itself in the right spot for the inevitable play-in tournament in the West. –– Lopez
The West bubble could have significant movement on Sunday.
The Memphis Grizzlies start their stretch run against the first of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. While the Toronto Raptors (and later, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks) don’t need wins like the current 8-seed does, the quality of opponent will challenge the fledgling Grizzlies.
The San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans can’t afford any more losses as they go head-to-head Sunday.
The Portland Trail Blazers are back in action after a critical loss Saturday to a Clippers team that rested Kawhi Leonard and sat Paul George down the stretch. Portland has to bounce back; if they lose and the Spurs win, San Antonio will move into the ninth spot.
The Sacramento Kings might be eliminated even if they find a way to beat the Houston Rockets.
8. Memphis Grizzlies | 33-37 (.471) | —
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 32-39 (.451) | 1.5 GB
10. Phoenix Suns | 31-39 (.443) | 2.0 GB
11. San Antonio Spurs | 30-38 (.441) | 2.0 GB
12. New Orleans Pelicans | 30-39 (.435) | 2.5 GB
13. Sacramento Kings | 29-40 (.420) | 3.5 GB
Full standings | Playoff matchups
Monday’s must-see games
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks | 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
The top two seeds in the East, a rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, and two excellent, well-coached teams. Of course, both the Raptors and Bucks are effectively locked into their positions and are as much prioritizing health and recovery as they are wins in their final seeding games. But assuming they go after it, this is a tasty matchup and one to definitely gather some takeaways from. — Royce Young
Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat | 8 p.m. ET
Bubble beef! T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler scuffled back in January, which led to Butler saying Warren is “trash,” Warren getting ejected and Butler then blowing him a goodbye kiss. Now, the Pacers are one of the hottest teams and Warren is the bubble’s leading scorer.
And to make it even better, the Heat and Pacers have identical records. And while seeding in a 4/5 matchup doesn’t matter, you never know — having those virtual fans on your side in a Game 7 could be the difference. — Young
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