10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clippers -7.5, Over/Under: 218
A pair of teams traveling in opposite directions meet tonight in the City of Angels, as the New Orleans Pelicans look to get back on track at the Los Angeles Clippers from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Coming into this season there was plenty of positive buzz swirling around the Pelicans (4-5, 12th in Western Conference), who looked to take the next step in their development, though have struggled to find their footing in the early stages of the 2020-2021 campaign. Of course, everything jumped off last January when No. One Overall Pick, Zion Wiliamson (21.9 PTS, 55.7% FG, 8.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 22.1 PER), made his debut with the club after missing the first forty-four games of the season rehabbing from knee surgery; New Orleans went 11-9 in the ensuring twenty games, before ultimately falling apart within the Bubble (2-6) where they missed out on the Playoffs for the fourth time in five years. As a result, (Head Coach) Alvin Gentry was relieved of his duties, eventually replaced by Stan Van Gundy, with the expectation that the veteran taskmaster would be able to unlock the lofty potential of their young core of talent. Of course, the 61-year old has long been one of the most respected basketball minds in the NBA, owning a 527-389 (.575) record as a Head Coach in successful stays with the Miami Heat, Orland Magic (whom he guided to the 2009 NBA Finals), and the Detroit Pistons before spending last season in television. A force in transition and on the glass, Van Gundy is looking to bring more consistency on the defensive end of the floor, while also build a stronger profile in the half court. However, nine games into this campaign and it’s become crystal clear that there is plenty of work to do. After ranking Second Overall in Pace under Gentry (103.7 Possessions/48 Minutes), the Pelicans are operating at the Association’s seventh-slowest pace, averaging 98.7 possessions per 48 minutes (24th Overall), which while having a dramatic effect on their defense has had an adverse effect on their offensive production. New Orleans relinquished 117.1 points per game last year (27th Overall) on 46.5% shooting from the field (19th Overall), and have since seen both of those figures improve under Van Gundy’s watch, now allowing 106.6 points per contest (5th Overall) on 44.5% shooting (6th Overall). Unfortunately, the Offense has staggered thus far, going from 115.8 points per game (5th Overall) to 107.1 points (25th Overall). The problem here is that without the luxury of getting easy opportunities in transition, there hasn’t been nearly enough spacing for Williamson & Co to work within Van Gundy’s half court sets, thanks in large part to a dearth of shooting from the perimeter; New Orleans has shot a dismal 32.2% from beyond the arc (30th Overall) with a scant 10.2 makes per night (27th Overall). This is particularly troublesome due to how Van Gundy’s teams typically play; offensively, they prefer to space the floor with shooting while forcing their opponents out of the paint on the defensive end, allowing a wealth of three-point attempts. Opponents have made an average of 15.9 treys per game thus far (30th Overall) leading to a disparity of Minus-17.1 points, by far and away the worst margin in the league. Surprisingly, veteran sharpshooter, J.J. Redick (7.3 PTS, 31.7% FG, 29.5% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 5.7 PER), who is a career 41.5% shooter from long-range, has plummeted to 29.5% shooting this season.
When we last saw the Pelicans, they slumped to their third consecutive defeat, relinquishing a sizeable 18-point lead to fall 118-110 to the Charlotte Hornets. It was a game of familiarity on a number of levels, for the Hornets relocated their franchise to New Orleans back in 2002, before eventually changing their name to the Pelicans in 2013, with the expansion Charlotte Bobcats reclaiming that moniker a year later. Friday’s matchup also marked the first meeting of brothers, Lonzo (12.4 PTS, 39.4% FG, 30.8% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 9.1 PER) and LaMelo Ball, with each sibling drafted Second Overall, the former selected in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the latter hearing his name called last November. The hosts raced out to a 47-29 lead midway through the Second Quarter, and owned 59-47 advantage at Halftime, but slowly saw their lead vanish over the ensuing two periods, thanks in large part to their inability to take care of the basketball; the Pelicans committed nineteen turnovers on the night which turned into a whopping twenty-seven points for the visitors, negating what was one of their better shooting performances of the young season. In the end, Van Gundy’s troops shot 49.4% from the field, including a stellar 15-of-38 from downtown (39.5%), as Redick regained his shooting touch with 4-of-7 treys (57.1%). Williamson led the way with twenty-six points on 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), eight rebounds and three assists, Redick and Josh Hart (8.4 PTS, 42.1% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 8.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 11.9 PER) combined for thirty-six points off the bench. All-Star Forward, Brandon Ingram (24.0 PTS, 45.0% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 5.8 AST, 22.7 PER) struggled though on 3-of-11 shooting, with all but one of his attempts coming from beyond the arc (3-of-10), leading to seventeen points but also accounted for a team-high four turnovers. While their shooting improved greatly, the Defense could not maintain it’s level of consistency, as Charlotte burned them on 47.1% shooting from the field, including 16-of-42 from three (38.1%), assisting on thirty-three of their forty-one field goals. Oh, and the battle of the Balls went to the younger LaMelo, who flirted with a triple-double totaling twelve points, ten rebounds, and nine assists, while Lonzo managed just five points a pair of rebounds, and three assists. Now hitting the road following a disastrous four-game homestand, the Pelicans will be well-rested coming into tonight’s meeting with the Clippers after Monday’s trip to Dallas was called off as eight members of the Mavericks tested positive for COVID-19. New Orleans lost three out of it’s four meetings with Los Angeles last season, including a 126-103 thumping in the Bubble in which Williamson was relegated to just seven points and five rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting (42.9%) in just over fourteen minutes of action.
Meanwhile, the Clippers (7-4, 2nd in Western Conference) are having no such struggles under the stewardship of their new Head Coach, Tyronn Lue, but then again, this is certainly one of those teams whom we refuse to judge until the Playoffs arrive. That’s what happens when you’re one of the few legitimate contenders to win a championship and you end up prematurely crashing out of the Postseason in spectacular fashion. After building a commanding 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Semifinals, Los Angeles proceeded to lose each of the next three contests, as their shooting betrayed them, their stars went silent, and their dogged defensive pressure failed to stop so much as a nosebleed. And it’s with that said that the franchise parted ways with Doc Rivers, whose charges were eliminated in such fashion for the second time during his tenure with the team, and promoted Lue, who had served as his lead assistant last year. Of course, Lue presided over the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2015 to 2018, a period in which they advanced to three consecutive NBA Finals, authoring the greatest comeback in Finals history when they rallied back from a 3-1 deficit against the record-breaking Golden State Warriors to earn the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy. Lauded for his ability to communicate with his players, particularly stars, the train of thought is that Lue will be able to motivate the partnership of Kawhi Leonard (24.4 PTS, 47.1% FG, 43.2% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 2.0 STL, 25.0 PER) and Paul George (25.0 PTS, 49.7% FG, 51.2% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 23.9 PER) to achieve greater things after both All-Stars disappeared during that fateful collapse against the Nuggets. Needless to say, anytime you manage to acquire two talents of this magnitude the expectations of your team will skyrocket, and the Clippers are absolutely a victim of that, and after underachieving in the manner that they did, someone had to pay the price, and that somebody was Rivers. Looking to put that embarrassment squarely in their past, the question is if this current iteration of the team is better suited for success. Well, the early returns have been promising; no team has shot better from beyond the arc, with Lue’s charges netting a scorching 42.4%, while the addition of veteran Center, Serge Ibaka (12.3 PTS, 50.0% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.1 BLK, 16.8 PER), has brought some sorely-needed size and length to contest shots in the paint (three-time All-Defense selection and two-time leader in blocks), not to mention a big with the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting (career 36.0% shooter from three). Oh, and the 31-year old is a grizzled veteran with championship experience, helping guide the Toronto Raptors alongside Leonard to the NBA Title in 2019, which should prove invaluable moving forward.
When we last the Clippers, they continued their troublesome trend of alternating wins and losses for the seventh straight contest, outlasting the Chicago bulls in a 130-127 affair from STAPLES Center. Falling behind by as many as thirteen points, Los Angeles finally managed to square things away heading into the Fourth Quarter, with the aforementioned Leonard putting together his strongest performance of the young campaign. Finally able to take off the bizarre protective mask that he had been wearing since suffering a shot to the mouth on Christmas Day (inadvertently from Ibaka, no less), the 2019 Finals MVP dropped a season-high thirty-five points on a stellar 14-of-22 shooting from the field (63.6%), including 7-of-9 from downtown (77.8%), netting five straight at one point in the third period (scoring 21 points in the process), in which he surpassed 10,000 points in his career. He was clearly relieved to shed the mask, with his shooting telling the story; Leonard shot 48-of-108 with the mask on this season (44.4%), in comparison to 63.6% on Sunday night. As a team, the hosts continued their hot shooting to begin the season, knocking down 48.9% of their field goals, including 20-of-38 from deep (52.6%), marking the fifth time in franchise history that they had made at least twenty triples in a single game. George added twenty-eight points on 8-of-19 shooting overall (42.1%), including 5-of-8 from three (62.5%), along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while sparkplug reserve, Lou Williams (10.0 PTS, 45.1% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 2.7 AST, 15.3 PER) poured in twenty-one points off the bench. Lue was also happy to welcome back veteran Forward Marcus Morris (8.3 PTS, 33.3% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.0 AST, 6.3 PER), who contributed with eleven points and seven rebounds in his third game back from injury. However, the skipper will no doubt be lamenting his troops’ struggles on the defensive end; Chicago was on fire throughout this affair, shooting a ridiculous 61.0% from the field, including 18-of-33 from beyond the arc (54.5%), assisting on thirty of their forty-seven field goals. Zach LaVine scored a game-high forty-five points on 15-of-26 shooting (57.7%), including a torrid 10-of-16 from deep (62.5%), but the difference in the game was the visitor’s twenty-three turnovers, which the home side managed to parlay into thirty-one points. Now they’ll be looking to win consecutive games for the first time since December 30th, and one would like their chances to do so against the struggling Pelicans. The Clippers won three out of four against them last season, including each of their last three meetings, averaging a prolific 130.0 points on 48.3% shooting from the floor, including 42.6% from downtown, with Leonard averaging 29.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.7 assists in three of those affairs.