There’s still no definitive answer on what to make of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Another chance to tally a meaningful victory fell by the wayside in the second half of Wednesday night’s 125-116 loss to the Toronto Raptors, snapping a three-game winning streak. It also provided another piece of evidence the Pelicans’ fortunes are almost entirely dependent on their opponent.
Through 15 games, New Orleans (8-7) has only tallied wins against teams at .500 or worse entering the night. The Pelicans have lost all seven games against opponents with a winning record, including this one.
And the Raptors (9-5) exposed many of the reasons why.
The Pelicans simply couldn’t keep up on the perimeter and were out-gunned throughout the lopsided second half, sending the announced 15,654 fans to the Smoothie King Center exits midway through the fourth quarter.
It was their worst defensive performance of the season, allowing Toronto to convert 62 percent from the floor and make 14 of 28 shot from 3-point range until the seven-minute mark of the fourth, building a 110-93 advantage. The Pelicans’ previous low was surrendering 50.6 percent shooting in a loss to Orlando.
The damage came in many forms, including foul trouble on Pelicans stars DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — a development on which coach Alvin Gentry focused most of his postgame comments.
“They were plus-18 from 3, so that was the difference in the game,” Gentry said. “Other than the fact that our two best players were sitting on the bench for most of the first half.”
Each committed three fouls by the midway point of the second quarter, limiting the pair to less than 15 minutes each in the opening half. Although both logged more than 30 minutes, Gentry alluded to the issue on five occasions in his postgame news conference without prompting.
Meanwhile, the Raptors got double-digit scoring contributions from six players, including DeMarr DeRozan’s 25 points, Kyle Lowry’s 22 and Jonas Valanciunas’ 21.
The onslaught was even more dispiriting for the Pelicans considering Toronto was on the second-half of a road back-to-back, defeating the Houston Rockets less than 24 hours earlier.
“We let guys who are known shooters get wide open shots,” Cousins said. “That’s on us. But, we were a bit limited tonight.”
It appeared the Pelicans were in position to take advantage of the rest differential, opening up a 14-point lead in the first quarter, but it disappeared quickly, and a 64-63 halftime deficit ballooned when Toronto won the third quarter 34-23.
The silver lining came in the form of point guard Rajon Rondo, who made his first appearance alongside the Pelicans’ starters, logging 14 minutes, scoring four points while dishing eight assists as he continues to gradually build his minutes, recovering from surgery on his repaired left core muscle.
He appeared to be a natural fit, crisply orchestrating the Pelicans’ offense to find cutters and throwing touch passes to keep the ball moving fluidly. The only area Rondo didn’t help was the Pelicans’ second-half performance, since he was forced to sit because of his minutes restriction.
“It felt good," Rondo said. “Just taking my time and trying to do the right thing out there. I haven't had any practices and these games are like my practices. I'm just trying to make sure I manage it correctly. It's a marathon, not a sprint.”
In Monday’s win over Atlanta, the Pelicans adjusted to a game plan built to limit Davis and Cousins’ shot attempts by sending double- and even-triple teams in the post.
Toronto took a different approach, maintaining man-to-man defense on the Pelicans’ superstars and allowing them to revert to a more dynamic scoring position.
But the foul trouble helped derail the dynamic duo from piling up the numbers necessary to keep up with the red-hot Raptors. Cousins posted 25 points and nine rebounds. Davis chipped in 19 points and five rebounds.
Those numbers weren’t nearly enough to keep up with the Raptors' high-octane offense clicking at the other end.
“I think they played a good game, honestly,” Cousins said. “Were we our best tonight? Absolutely not. I think we let a lot of our frustrations get to us as a team.”
Many of the Pelicans’ lingering flaws, which didn’t prove to be fatal in wins over lesser competition — particularly their 18.7 turnovers per game during the three-game winning streak — came back to bite them.
“We’ve got to play harder,” Davis said. “They shot the ball well, 59 percent. They shot a high percentage from 3. It’s hard to get out and run when they’re doing what they’re doing.”