Though Zion Williamson has had surgery, the NBA season must go on.
The New Orleans Pelicans flew north to face the Toronto Raptors for opening night. Alvin Gentry kept the team close to the court for Toronto’s ring ceremony, then ran out 12 different players before halftime. The strategy almost worked but ultimately the Pelicans fell in overtime 130-122.
Toronto’s depth won them a championship last season, along with Kawhi Leonard. The Pelicans bench depth proved to be worthy of the offseason praise on opening night. Gentry played 12 players while Toronto had only 8 players log minutes. The Raptors playing a short bench showed how much they wanted to win on opening night, to better feel there will be life without Leonard.
The Pelicans wanted to win to show this team is better than ever, even minus Anthony Davis and Williamson. The win was there for the taking despite Jrue Holiday playing a subdued game and Nickeil Alexander-Walker only making one shot from the field.
Brandon Ingram had 22 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Josh Hart had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Nicolo Melli found his range, hitting four of five shots from deep. Melli was reluctant to shoot towards the end of the game though. There are several positives and coaching moments to take away from this game. Still, it was tough to lose the way they did.
“I’m disappointed because I think we let a golden opportunity slip away,” Gentry said after the game. Gentry knows he must shoulder a good deal of blame.
He said, “We’ve got a lot of things to try to figure out rotationally, execution-wise and establishing exactly what kind of team we’re going to be.”
Derrick Favors only played 20 minutes. Nicolo Melli was hot all night but barely played to end the game. Lonzo Ball and Derrick Favors were barely seen in the fourth quarter but both came in cold for the overtime session. The rotations were constantly being altered even though Toronto only used three reserves. Gentry is a mechanic still trying to find the best setup for his race car, but it will take a bit more time.
Gentry said it’s “not going to happen in one game, five games, or whatever. Somewhere along the line, we will get to where we need to get. The guys have a good attitude. I thought we played hard and competed, but you also have to play smart and execute.”
The Pelicans were leading at halftime. In the post-game press conference, Gentry’s opened by saying “I thought we started the game the way we wanted to. I thought the pace of the game was great. We did a good job early on of playing in space. Moving the basketball, making cuts.”
The team got away from that pace after halftime. The team started committing unforced errors, turnovers, and quit moving. Toronto won the quarter by seven points. Gentry lamented, “I think as the night went on, the pace of the game, we began to play too much isolation basketball. And at the end of the day, they made a couple of big plays at the end...We didn’t play smart down the stretch there.”
The Pelicans had as many turnovers and mistake in the third quarter as the team had in the first half. Some were mental mistakes but Toronto came out strong in the second half. The pride of a champion was on display.
Gentry said, “They got into us defensively. We have to be able to execute when the defense gets into you and I thought we didn’t do a very good job of that. We had too many missed opportunities and possessions that ended up pretty much just trying to create a shot. That’s not a good thing to do against that team.”
E’Twaun Moore was the first off the bench but Frank Jackson was the first player praised in Gentry’s postgame comments. All 12 players to get in the game logged at least ten minutes. The Pelicans wave of reserves outscored the Raptors short bench 57-23 but it did not matter. New Orleans had no answer for Fred Van Vleet, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry.
Kyle Lowry has continued to help Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet prove they belong on the national stage. Siakam had 34 points and 18 rebounds. Van Vleet had 34 points and 7 assists. Kyle Lowry had 22 points and 6 assists.
For all the talk of having the best defensive backcourt in the league, the Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball had plenty of problems containing Van Vleet and Lowry. No one had much success stopping Siakam, who looks like a bonafide star ready to fill the Kawhi role for the Raptors. Any early season MVP ballots will have Siakam far ahead of Holiday.
Gentry said Toronto made life tough for Holiday by “trapping him off screens and rolls you know. Every time he came off a screen, they trapped him. Made him give up the basketball. They were pretty aggressive on him. I thought we did a good job of moving (the ball) on early on in the game. We got a little stagnant especially in the third quarter.”
The Pelicans were short one rookie of earning a win. The other star rookie to take the court had a rough night. Still, Alexander-Walker showed he deserved his spot in the rotation. He has great hands and defensive anticipation. He did not find many points but it is encouraging he is spotting those defensive opportunities. His passing vision is already exceptional and his shot will become more consistent in time.
Gentry said, “Nickeil didn’t shoot the ball well. As a young player, he is going to have those kinds of nights. I still like the fact that he plays with a lot of confidence and he’s going to have nights where he shoots it really well.”
After NBA Opening Night, it’s all but obvious. Gentry knows.
“We are still a work in progress...We’re a really deep team. We just got to find a way, you know, to have someone step up for us in the end and we need to execute.”