If you are a fan of New Orleans sports and you felt confident enough for the Saints that a few months ago you told people not to judge the team by their preseason performances, then you can apply that same rule to the NBA.
After going winless in the preseason, the Pelicans opened the season with a blazing 131-112 victory over Southwest Division opponent the Houston Rockets, a team that finished last season one win shy of defeating the Golden State Warriors for a trip to the NBA finals. The Pelicans appeared to have picked up every bit of where they left off from last season when they swept the Portland Trailblazers out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The Pels started the game off fast and furious and never trailed for the duration of the contest.
It should be noted that the Houston Rockets look worse defensively since wingman Trevor Ariza departed for Phoenix. The Rockets also did not get much of an added element from Carmelo Anthony, who scored nine points in 27 minutes of play in a bench role. However, comparatively the Pelicans look as if they have taken steps forward, despite offseason departures of center DeMarcus Cousins and point guard Rajon Rondo. 2017-18 MVP candidate Anthony Davis got the better of the reigning award-winner James Harden (18 pts/10 ast/9 reb) with a stat line of 32 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals.
Let’s break down all the facts that went into an opening night win.
Are the Pelicans better than last year?
Coach Alvin Gentry was pleased with his team after the win but warned that they have to focus on the games ahead instead of being overly excited. He’s right. However, it’s hard not to get hyped up over an offense that featured four players scoring 20 points or more and collectively finishing with a 104.5 rating in pace. The numbers in pace are comparable to last season in which they finished the year as the league’s fastest team.
There’s reason to believe that portion of their game has room to grow and has not peaked. Rondo starting at point guard had a significant role in the development of this system last season, but Gretna native Elfrid Payton appeared comfortable as an aggressive pace pusher in the open court against Houston. His skills are comparable to Rondo’s. Look for recent addition Tim Frazier in the coming games to bring that element to the reserve units. The Pels have begun the process of replacing Rondo with a playmaking Payton and Frazier for about 1/4 of the cost.
What should be considered is that no matter who departed from the Pelicans this offseason, the leadership and core remained: Davis and NBA First Team All-Defense guard Jrue Holiday.
How did the Pelicans do it?
What’s unique about the way the Pelicans are playing right now is that it’s like an inverted version of what’s trending in the NBA right now. When the team says they #DoItBig, they literally mean it. While most teams are getting smaller by utilizing multi-guard lineups with high volume outside shooters, the Pels are leaning on their frontcourt players and creating mismatches to get easy buckets in the paint, mostly off of fast breaks.
Power forward Nikola Mirotic was on absolute fire, stretching the floor by going 6-of-8 from 3-point range and finishing with 30 points. Offseason signing Julius Randle did most of his damage inside and running the floor, totaling 30 points and 8 rebounds. What makes this three-man rotation so dangerous is that they’re all versatile, able to run, and have better than average ball handling that allows them to start fast breaks on their own after defensive rebounds. When these guys are rolling, they’re attacking inside and out and creating open shots for teammates waiting in the wings.
Pelicans will host the Sacramento Kings on Friday and look to build on their performance from the season opener.
Editors Note: This piece was also published at Bourbon Street Shots, and has been reprinted here with permission of the author.