Close but no cigar: Pelicans rally against the Eastern Conference Champs falls short

There are no moral victories in professional sports and New Orleans Pelicans fans likely feel they received a lump of coal after a 111-98 loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.

I’ll be honest. I am actually a little surprised that this Pelicans team is competing as well as they are this early in the season. They open the season on the road and beat a Toronto Raptors team 113-99 that has had the league’s best record for the last five years and then just two days later travel to Miami and give the Heat, the reigning Eastern Conference Champion a run for their money after a second-half rally.

Things are going to happen quickly this season so let’s not lose perspective on where the Pelicans are right now.

The team’s two stars are guys that are solidifying their footing in NBA basketball. Zion Williamson is producing but still discovering what his strengths are and where he needs to improve. Brandon Ingram is flourishing now that he’s a Pelican for the long haul but let’s not forget that some were considering him a potential lottery bust prior to his arrival in New Orleans. These guys are learning how to be stars.

With new coach Stan Van Gundy this roster is still developing and still learning what to expect from their new system. Van Gundy is installing a system on the fly. They had an offseason that was just a couple of weeks. They had a shortened camp and shortened preseason with no summer league for rookies.

Looking at the schedule, Miami is the best team that New Orleans will face until Dallas on Jan. 11. Phoenix, who they face Tuesday, might be really good but we’re not sure because we haven’t seen them in action enough up to this point.

The good thing about this quick moving schedule is that we can forget quickly. Tomorrow, the team is back home and already gearing up to face a zombie version of the San Antonio Spurs. Unless, we see a string of consecutive losses soon, we need not to panic.

But before we forget about Christmas, let’s take a look back at how Friday’s late rally fell short.

The Good

After falling behind by 20 points more than once in the match up with the Heat, there was every reason for the Pelicans to lay down and die.

Again, we saw the Pelicans greatly improve in the third quarter rather than collapse. Adjustments are continuing to be made and players are continuing to respond. As adjustments on defense were made, we saw guard Josh Hart provide a spark by making defensive plays that turned into points on the other end. Hart led the bench effort with 12 points.

Williamson and Ingram kept chipping away despite a lack of contributions from other players. Williamson scored 32 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Ingram nearly looked poised to take over the game by doing work in the third quarter and totaling 28 points.

The team is showing fight and an ability to fight out of large deficits. The two stars that are under the age of 25 look comfortable enough to put the team on their backs. They still have much to learn but they are on track.

The Bad

Turnovers are still plaguing this team.

Williamson’s handle is still not up to NBA standard. As good as he was Friday, he wass still loose with the ball when he put it on the floor and can be careless with handoff passes. His greatest strength is direct motion. He has to clean his game up.

Ironically, it was the oldest players that accounted for a majority of the team’s 19 turnovers. J.J. Redick committed six turnovers and point guard Eric Bledsoe committed five. However, it’s not unusual that the guards had a bad day against a good team. It’s clear that Miami was okay with Williamson and Ingram eating while they shut down everyone else. It’s the cast that wins the game.

Rotations on defense has to improve. The guys lost Duncan Robinson on the floor several times. However, Robinson was exceptional and routinely does this on a nightly basis.

The Ugly

Van Gundy wants a rotation right now of 9 to 10 players and the team is currently only capable of relying on 7 to 9.

The biggest hole is coming from the frontcourt. They have to find someone off the bench that can contribute valuable minutes. Second year Jaxson Hayes is struggling. It’s easy to get frustrated with a lottery pick capable of highlight reel dunks, but I’m here to remind you Hayes is the same player from his rookie. Hayes can be a capable player but he has a lot to learn, still needs to physically adjust to the NBA, and is learning the system of a new coach that is still fine tuning what his system will be for the squad.

More concerning than Hayes is power forward Nicolo Melli not being able to contribute on either end of the floor. He specializes in 3-point shooting and those shots have not fallen so far. He’s getting burned on defense and not contributing enough in the rebounding department.

Miami is a team that can force off nights. Sunday against the Spurs is a good opportunity to further work out Friday’s issues. Granted, Friday was the first time we saw those issues in action. We’ve also seen enough to know those issues can be resolved.

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