The New Orleans Pelicans didn’t need to use their Christmas wish to figure out where their problem lies.
The issue is so demonstratively obvious that coach Alvin Gentry hardly feels the need to mention it anymore.
The Pelicans can’t close out games in crunch time.
In consecutive losses to the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, the Pelicans saw their offense fizzle and defense falter, as winnable games slipped away in the final minutes. The losing streak sunk New Orleans to 14th place in the Western Conference, an unthinkable position after its 4-0 start to the season.
“It’s exactly the same,” Gentry said of the past three games. “We play good basketball, and then when we need to execute and come up with big defensive plays, we don’t. This three-game road trip has been very similar. All the games have been very similar — where we have played and we have been right there, and we have not been able to close, defend or come up with baskets.
“Some of the shots we have gotten have been very makeable shots that we have to make. We didn’t do it, and to me, the last five or six minutes of the game they just competed harder than we did.”
It’s not just the Pelicans are worse than last season, when they won an NBA-best 30 “clutch” games. And it’s not just they’re performing worse than a typical playoff team.
They’re objectively terrible when a game is within five points in the final five minutes. New Orleans is 5-12 in those situations, the NBA’s worst winning percentage in the clutch.
Beyond the record — which can be dictated by how often the Pelicans entered those final five minutes trailing — it’s their league-worst net rating that’s even more illuminating of the crunch time struggles. They’ve been outscored by an alarming 30.6 points per 100 possessions over their most crucial 45 minutes of the season.
The only other teams who have posted a clutch net rating worse than minus-15 are the cellar-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves. So, it’s not good company.
Most concerning for the Pelicans, it doesn’t matter what the lineup combination is. Or who the opponent is.
It’s all been a problem.
And it only requires looking at the Pelicans’ two biggest stars, who have succeeded statistically in the first 43 minutes of the game, but experience a drastic dropoff in the final five minutes.
And it’s an even more staggering change from last year, when the Pelicans were significantly better than their opponents in the clutch when either Jrue Holiday or Anthony Davis were playing at the end of the game. Their pick-and-roll abilities on both ends turned many tight games in their favor, as the Pelicans got red hot down the stretch to reach the playoffs.
A completely different story has arisen this time around.
This year, when Holiday or Davis is on the court in any other situation, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by more than five points per 100 possessions. But when it’s a clutch situation, they’ve been outscored by an absurd 26.5 points per 100 possessions.
It’s a confounding and striking difference, and one few players or coaches can soberly assess.
And it’s an issue that needs immediate rectification, starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when they play the Mavericks in Dallas, to complete a difficult road trip.
“I think it’s kind of the same story,” Holiday said. “We need to come down and execute, kind of put people in position to make plays and make the right plays. I think between the coaches and the players we need to get on the same page when it comes down to the last four minutes. I think they played hard, they fought hard and the crowd was into it.”