Learning the Hard Way: Late Game Defense

Published: March 24, 2015

“The thing that I liked about it was our guys felt bad about the execution down the stretch, and about the way we won. And I had to bring them back a little bit. This time of the year, playing playoff teams, it’s going to be a fight. Any way you can get the win, you take it and you move on, try to learn from it. We didn’t have our best stuff tonight, we still won the game. So that’s something we can be proud of, and again, we know we have to learn from it.”

-Monty Williams after the 85-84 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 17th.


The New Orleans Pelicans have had a tough week. Going 0-3 on a road trip with three Western Conference playoff contenders dealt a big blow to the team’s playoff chances. GM Dell Demps has favored acquiring players in their early to mid-twenties to surround around Anthony Davis. The first wave, was predominantly offensive minded players: Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday (Holiday being a two-way player.) Demps placed a premium on acquiring young players who are already familiar with the everyday rigor of NBA life. But these players are by no means finished products, and it shows on defense. Demps has done a great job of adding defensive minded players this year, in Omer Asik, Norris Cole, Quincy Pondexter, and Dante Cunningham. But the last three players on that list have all been added during the season. With no training camp to work on defensive rotations, there is only so much improvement that can happen mid-season.

After trading away John Salmons, the team doesn’t have a single player over the age of 28 on the roster. These players are young, who can still grow, especially as they get more experience in meaningful games late in the season. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as Eric Gordon’s resurgence post-shoulder injury. Little things get learned and cleared up too. For a team that started the year with only two players having any serious post-season experience in Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson (and both those players promptly getting hurt,) this team has a lot of learning to do. Chemistry isn’t made overnight, and neither is a solid defensive team.

Before the road-trip, we saw some of the advantages of having this team playing meaningful basketball this late in the season.  Little plays that make up a basketball game (the kind that make Shane Battier a coach’s favorite player) end up under the microscope once the season kicks into high-gear. While the Pelicans may not make the playoffs this season, they are playing meaningful games in the ‘second’ season. And meaningful, close games, are often decided by a handful of small plays. And these are the kind of plays that the Pelicans’ young core will learn the most from. If the Pelicans were in the midst of another 34-win season, these plays don’t matter as much, and without getting too meta-, this article probably doesn’t get written.

Against the Denver Nuggets, the Pelicans saw two plays where they poorly communicated on defense, resulting in open threes that doomed them. The first play was on Will Barton’s three with 8 seconds left that sent the game into double overtime.  Gallinari (being covered by Cunningham) hands the ball off to Barton, using his body to pick Barton’s man (Evans.) The move results in a miscommunication, with neither Evans nor Cunningham sticking to Barton, allowing for Barton to have a wide-open look, which he nails.

Barton’s Shot

In double overtime, we see a similar mishap. Gallinari again has the ball, while Barton sets a pick on Jameer Nelson’s man off-the-ball (Cole), before setting a pick on Gallo’s man (Cunningham.) Cole and Evans both stay on Barton after the screen for Nelson, before Cole runs back to Barton and Evans hesitates before closing out on the wide-open Gallo. Cunningham is taken out by Barton’s pick, and Gallo is able to dribble into a wide-open three, nailing the shot and giving the Nuggets a 114-109 lead they would never relinquish.

Gallo’s Dagger

Two days later, the Pelicans found themselves in a similar situation, up 85-84 with 2.4 seconds left in the game, and the Milwaukee Bucks inbounding the ball. Off a screen then curl action, Ersan Ilyasova gets free and has a great look at the jumper. This time, the Pelicans had the basketball gods on their side, and the ball rattled in and out. But the look was open all the same.

Almost happened again…


Monty did his best in defending his team, saying “With two seconds on the clock it’s hard to switch, cause you don’t want to give up the slip, so AD couldn’t get through the screen and [Ilyasova] got an open look.” Which is true, but there is no way you want to give that open of a look as time expires. This was a communication breakdown.


There is an old coaching adage, that you learn more off of a loss than a win. Similarly, you learn more from a close game, than a blowout. These were two close games the Pelicans will learn from. After the Nuggets loss, Cole sat in the lockerroom and asked for an iPad. He watched a video a couple of times before calling over to Davis and Evans, who both came and looked over his shoulder. They watched and then talked about a play. I don’t know which play it was, but if I had to guess, it was the Gallinari three, that featured Cole and Evans. When Davis stood back up, he said something along the lines of “we learn for next time.” It was a great moment to see, players learning from each other like that, something that doesn’t happen if you’re not in the race for the playoffs. It also explains why Davis seemed so angry after the Bucks win, as if the team had lost, because they made a similar mistake. I wish I had a gif to share where we see these experiences pay off, but this isn’t Eddie, where the giant Russian center takes a charge to clinch the playoffs in the last scene (though how awesome would Asik yelling like Ivan does at the 2:14 mark be?) But these games matter, not just in the standings.

Yesterday, McNamara published an article talking about the Pelicans running it back with the same team next year. Short of some blockbuster trade becoming available (drunk San Antonio trading Kawhi Leonard?) it is safe to assume the Pelicans will have the majority of their rotation back for 2015-2016. The experience of being in the playoff run is going to really help this New Orleans grow into the kind of team that can contend for more than just the playoffs in years to come.

The Pelicans are already a monster executing on offense after timeouts, as Chris Forsberg accidentally showed when posting this tweet heralding head coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics:

Bruce Bowen recently said on ESPN that he didn’t think the Pelicans were going to make the playoffs because they “They lack a lot of the veterans that are needed in a situation like this.” But as with most things, Anthony Davis doesn’t seem to care about the conventions, as was displayed by Tom Haberstroh’s tweet:

This is a team that has already grown into an offensive juggernaut, despite all the injuries and changing rotational pieces. Defense almost always takes more time to master than offense. You can see it in teams like New Orleans and Phoenix, two young teams that rank in the top half of the league in offense, yet the bottom half of the league on defense. Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Heat used to say that his team “needed to be on a string,” when on defense. That takes time. Good offense beats good defense, so the defense has to be that much better. With more time, and the acquisition of defensive minded players like Asik, Pondexter, Cunningham, and Cole; the team can start focusing more and more on executing defense (and late game defense) well.


No offense to Bowen (or Salmons), but the Pelicans don’t need grizzled playoff veterans added to their rotation so much as they need their young players to get experience in meaningful basketball games, and that’s exactly what has been happening. Let’s enjoy the ride, knowing we’re only moving up.


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