Anatomy of a Win (And Watching a Winner Being Built.)

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Published: February 28, 2015

When the Miami Heat vs. the New Orleans Pelicans was picked to be the ESPN game, I doubt they had yesterday’s game in mind. Anthony Davis and Chris Bosh both being out, and with Dwyane Wade going 4-16 from the field. This all of a sudden didn’t look like a game “where amazing happens.” But ESPN must have been happy, watching a close game that was decided in the final seconds. And the Pelicans must be happy too and not only because they grabbed the 104-102 win. But because they are building the habits of a winner.

After beating the Miami Heat thoroughly just a week before, the Pelicans knew the Heat weren’t ready to surrender a second game to the Pelicans in six days. So the Heat came out strong, with Goran Dragic learning the system each and every day, and with Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, and Davis out, it felt like the kind of game that the Pelicans would have lost a few months ago.

And throughout the first three quarters, the game looked that way. The Pelicans were down 82-73. The Heat had scored 46 points in the paint on 23/32 shooting. They also were a perfect 6/6 on the fastbreak, scoring 14 points (this from the slowest paced team in the NBA for most of the season.) The game was trending downward, with the Pelicans being outscored 28-19 in the third quarter, and giving up 16 points on 8/9 shooting in the paint in the third quarter alone.

The Pelicans outscored the Heat 31-20 in the final quarter. Usually when the Pelicans go through giant swings like that, it is due to Anthony Davis going into Super Saiyan mode or Ryan Anderson and the Pelican bombers turning it on from beyond the arc. But the Pelicans won this game by scoring inside, and playing great defense.

Even with Evans fouling out, the team didn’t lose their composure. Eric Gordon headed a pick and roll and delivered a beautiful pass to Alexis Ajinca who made a layup. It was Ajinca’s 14th point of the quarter, and 24th of the game, and proved to be the winning points. The Heat had two opportunities after that to tie up the game. A Wade-Whiteside pick and roll that had given the team two points the prior possession was this time snuffed out by Asik, who blocked the shot. The next possession, a 1-2 pick and roll with Wade as the ballhandler resulted in Norris Cole switching onto his old teammate. Cole got Wade to take a contested step back 3-pointer, which ricocheted off the rim as time expired. Those are the kind of plays that win ball games.

The Pelicans shot 9/16 from the field in the fourth quarter, but only two of those attempts (and one of the makes) came from beyond the arc. Most of the damage was done in the paint (the Pelicans scored 14 points off 7/11 shooting) and from the charity stripe, where they shot 12/15 in the fourth quarter. Seeing that kind of inside domination from the team is key, for if the Pelicans can continue to find ways to dominate the paint, they will win a lot of games down the stretch.

On the defensive side, I asked Coach Monty Williams if there were any particular adjustments that he made heading into the fourth. He bluntly said, “We just weren’t guarding the ball…In the fourth we just said we just got to guard the ball. Got to stop the ball in the pick and roll. The one time it hurt us, Omer [Asik] stopped the ball and [Hassan] Whiteside got the dunk. But that is what we wanted. We were trying to take that play out. The next time, Whiteside was open, and Omer goes all the way to the basket, gets a block. I thought the biggest key was just figuring out a way to guard the ball.”

The Pelicans got into the penalty with 9:42 left in the game, allowing the team to set up their defense a lot more. Holding the Heat to only two fastbreak points, zero second chance points, and only six points in the paint (on 3/9 shooting) in the fourth quarter was huge. The Pelicans had given up 14 points to Dragic in the first half, with all seven field goals coming off layups. With improved defense (as well as getting Dragic into foul trouble) the team held him to six points on 2/4 shooting in the second half. Wade was held to 4/16, with the Pelicans forcing him into 13 pull up jumpers, of which everyone was contested, and he only made three of them.

Pondexter had another great game, scoring 18 points on 7/11 shooting, while drawing Wade as an assignment for most of the game. Cole maybe had the best 0/10 shooting night one can have, not letting the shooting effect his defensive intensity. Gordon had eight assists to one turnover. Watching the team play like that resulted in a big win for the New Orleans Pelicans.

You can also feel it after the game, with how Ajinca was all smiles, Cole talking about how “these are the type of games that we need.” Q-Pon joking during Evans interview, the two joking around. Q-Pon also referenced how Asik left immediately after the showers, not even icing up, which “No Ice Asik” is how I am going to think of him for the time being. This is a team coming together. As Evans said when a writer asked about the Pelicans having a 17% chance of making the playoffs according to one system “We ain’t worried about the computer man, we worried about us playing basketball. We know the computer is hella smart but …we just want to win games.” If the Pelicans keep playing this way, they’ll win a bunch of games, computers be damned.

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