With their starting point guard missing 40 games this season and New Orleans firmly playing for the distant future, Tuesday’s performance from Elfrid Payton was a stark reminder of what could have been for the 2018-19 Pelicans.
In his 11th game back from his second right ankle sprain of the season, Payton notched his second triple-double in as many games, setting a career-high in rebounds with 15, to go with 14 points and 11 assists. His early energy – a result of coach Alvin Gentry’s challenge to continue to push the pace as he gains his speed and endurance back – helped propel the Pelicans early, but home team fell victim to the visiting Bucks’ depth and length in the second half, losing 130-113 Tuesday night at the Smoothie King Center.
In the loss, the Pelicans set season-high marks in shot attempts (107) and 3-point attempts (47), managing to shoot 43 percent from the field but just 21.3 percent from beyond the arc (10-of-47).
But both marks were stark improvements on the Pelicans first half woes, where they hung with Milwaukee early on, managing a 23-all tie after a first quarter where Payton totaled nine rebounds, six points and five assists in the game’s first 12 minutes.
Despite getting MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo in early foul trouble with three in the first half, New Orleans (30-40) trailed 56-48 at halftime after giving up a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second quarter that helped the Bucks (51-17) create initial separation. As a team, the Pelicans finished the first half just 19-for-56 from the field (33.9 percent) as a team and a woeful 3-for-27 from deep (11.1).
“Honestly, I think despite not shooting well in the first half, we just weren’t making shots,” Payton said. “But in the third quarter, we didn’t really take really good shots, and they got some threes, and it got away from us a little bit.”
Down 10 points early in the third quarter, 68-58, the Pelicans surrendered a quick 11-0 spurt in less than two minutes and trailed by as many as 22.
But New Orleans continued to hang around with the help of Anthony Davis’ 17 third-quarter points, including 12 of his team’s 17 during a 3:09 stretch in the middle of the period. He checked out of the game for good with 3:14 left in the third with 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 21 minutes.
It was Davis’ second double-double since the Pelicans instituted a minutes restriction for their star forward following his public trade demand on Jan. 28.
His teammates scored the final five points of the third quarter to trail by 12, 101-89 and shrunk the deficit to as few as seven (105-98) off a 3-pointer from Darius Miller with 9:13 left in regulation. But they then gave up eight-straight to the Bucks over 1:27 to put the game firmly out of reach, including six from Antetokounmpo, who finished with a game-high 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including a perfect 10-for-10 mark at the charity stripe while welcoming an “M-V-P, M-V-P” chant while at the line in the fourth quarter.
Nikola Mirotic added 14 in his first return to the Smoothie King Center after his Feb. 7 trade to Milwaukee.
Julius Randle matched Payton’s early energy, scoring 11 of his team’s 23 first-quarter points and totaled 15 at halftime. He led the team in scoring with 23, but his and Payton’s early spark dimmed toward the end of the first half.
“We just never really got into a rhythm where we could keep the pressure on,” Gentry said. “It remained on us, and once they got the lead, we were exchanging baskets, and you can’t get back in the game exchanging baskets. You’ve got to get stops.”