Pelicans on verge of being swept as offense, stars continue to crater on playoff stage

NEW ORLEANS — As soon as Jose Alvarado got the steal, Naji Marshall was off to the races. It was a situation that felt familiar to them.

After Josh Giddey’s bullet pass under the basket bounced off Lu Dort’s hands, Alvarado snatched the loose ball and kicked it ahead to Marshall, who was already in a full sprint toward the other basket.

These are the plays where the New Orleans Pelicans thrived all season. Force a turnover on one end, and score a basket on the other. New Orleans has looked unrecognizable in this year’s playoffs. But for a split-second, there was a glimpse of the team that won 49 games this season and, at one point, seemed like a serious threat in the West.

Then, they snapped back to reality.

Marshall drove into the lane and tried to bank in a layup off the glass, but it hit the side of the rim. Trey Murphy III attempted to follow up the miss by tipping it off the glass, but the ball slowly rolled off the rim and into the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Marshall and Murphy couldn’t even hide their dejection as they jogged back on defense.

Nothing has gone right for the Pelicans in their first-round series against the Thunder, and this sequence made clear how tough it’s been to find anything to feel good about.

Even if one of those layups would’ve gone down, the game was already over. By that point, Oklahoma City had already built a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Thunder held a firm lead most of the afternoon before walking away with a 106-85 victory in Game 3 on Saturday, which gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

“When you have one of your best players out, your margin for error shrinks. When your margin for error shrinks against one of the better teams, every bit of execution matters,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said, referring to Zion Williamson. “The turnovers, the way we set screens, the shot-taking that we have. … We just didn’t capitalize on our opportunities.”

This series is essentially over, and the Pelicans’ season will end along with it. Even if New Orleans was playing its best ball, this Thunder team is probably too talented and too determined to be taken down.

This Pelicans season will eventually come to a bitter end, and it’ll probably be more bitter than the feeling they had last season when Oklahoma City sent them on an early vacation with a victory in the Play-In Tournament.

When the Pelicans reached the playoffs in 2022 with pretty much this same squad, they were able to walk away with their heads high after a first-round exit because they gave the No. 1 seed everything it could handle. The end of this story will have a completely different feel.

This time, the brash, fearless Pelicans have looked timid and hesitant as Oklahoma City’s swarming defense has made them look like shells of themselves. While the Thunder have proved they are one of the most dangerous defensive units in the NBA, they shouldn’t get all the credit for their opponent’s collapse this series.

The Pelicans’ offense has fluctuated between bad and atrocious throughout the last three games against OKC.

In a 124-92 defeat in Game 2 on Wednesday, New Orleans suffered its most lopsided loss in a playoff game since 2009. On Saturday, it was held to the fewest points by the franchise in a playoff game since 2011. They also started this series scoring 92 or fewer points in three consecutive games, which hasn’t been done since the 2016 Toronto Raptors.

And making it even more frustrating is that most of the issues have been a result of self-sabotage.

The coaching staff placed a major emphasis on taking care of the ball coming into the series, knowing that Oklahoma City led the league in points off turnovers this season. While they did a decent job of following the plan in Game 1, the Pelicans faltered in the last two games.

After turning the ball over 18 times in Game 2, they followed that with 21 turnovers in Game 3 as the Thunder gladly kept pouring in the easy baskets. Through three games, New Orleans is averaging more turnovers (17.7) than every other playoff team and their total turnovers (53) are only three fewer than their total number of assists (56).

“The turnovers and the lack of confidence shooting the ball when we have open looks, that’s difficult (to overcome),” Green said. “It’s been difficult to generate points. … We can’t kill ourselves with the turnovers, and that’s what we did tonight.”

More than the turnovers, the most frustrating aspect of this series has been the lack of production from the two remaining stars — Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum — knowing the pressure on them would rise with Williamson still out with a hamstring injury.

They combined for just 35 points on 14-of-36 shooting in Saturday’s loss, and there hasn’t been a point in any of the three losses when they have been executing at a high level.

Oklahoma City has made everything difficult for them. While both are known for being tough shot makers, neither has consistently been able to drain those looks.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball well throughout the series, but Game 3 may have been his worst performance of the playoffs. He shot 2-of-8 on 3-pointers and turned the ball over six times, tied for his most ever in a playoff game. McCollum came out aggressively, but he missed his first seven shots, and his struggle to find a rhythm put New Orleans in an early hole.

McCollum was playing some of the best basketball of his career leading into the postseason, averaging 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists on 49/53/95 shooting splits over the final seven games of the regular season. But he’s gone cold since. Without that extra scoring punch on the perimeter, New Orleans has looked stagnant in the half court and the spacing has been less than ideal.

“I’ve just been missing shots. I’ve had some quality looks,” McCollum said. “It’s a make-or-miss league and when you miss it’s difficult, especially in the playoffs when your team needs you to score. It’s hard for us to win games when I’m not being efficient and productive.”

Even with McCollum’s struggles, the hope for New Orleans was that Ingram would look more like the budding star he became during his first playoff run in 2022. But as great as he was in that series against the Phoenix Suns, he’s been disastrous this time around against the Thunder.

Ingram has been held under 20 points in all three losses this series and posted single-digit scoring during the first half in all three games. He knew he would have to carry a much larger load on offense the way he has much of his career without Williamson. But a combination of outstanding defense from Dort and a lack of aggression from Ingram has rendered the Pelicans’ emotional leader ineffective in the series.

Not only has his scoring been down, but he’s also tallied just seven assists in three games against the Thunder. Without his scoring and his playmaking, the Pelicans just don’t have enough to create consistent offense against the Thunder’s top-notch defense.

“It’s tough, especially when you expect so much more out of yourself,” Ingram said. “But OKC, they’ve been game planning, trying to take me off the basketball — trying to make me play off the basketball. Being physical, sending different bodies at me. I’ve just got to figure it out. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I’ll continue to keep going and try to figure out ways to be effective.”

It’s also tough to ignore that Ingram has not looked the same since he returned from a bone bruise in his left knee that cost him 12 games toward the end of the regular season. He fought to make his way back in time for the season final against the Lakers on April 14, but he was held to 13 points in that game and benched for most of the fourth quarter.

In the six games he’s played since returning from injury, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while shooting 45.1 percent from the field. He has only scored 20 or more points in one of those six games and eclipsed five assists in only one of those games.

“I feel like I’ve had spurts where I feel good, but not completely. I’m not happy with none of my performances from the playoffs,” Ingram said. “I don’t think I’m myself completely. I’ll continue to push forward and try to find mine. But I can’t just worry about myself. I’ve got to worry about my teammates … making sure they’re in rhythm. If they’re in rhythm, they’ll find me in rhythm too.”

The Pelicans will have one more chance to show some pride and avoid complete embarrassment in this series. But with the way they’ve played, Game 4 will likely be more of the same from an offense that’s lost its identity and a team that’s lost its swagger.

The narrative for much of the season has been the Pelicans reversing trends that have ruined recent campaigns. Williamson played a career-high 70 games, and Ingram played the second-most regular season games (64) of his career.

But it’s the same old story as New Orleans stares down the conclusion of this season. Williamson will be in street clothes. Ingram will be fighting through his injury issues. McCollum will be pushing through on an empty gas tank. And the entire organization will embark on another summer filled with “what ifs.”

“It’s unfortunate, man. … You can’t control some of those things. You can’t control injuries. You can’t control timing of the injuries. That’s just a part of the game,” McCollum said. “It is what it is. Some years, you have really good health. Some years, you don’t. Sometimes, the timing isn’t ideal, but you’ve got to figure it out collectively.”

(Photo of Brandon Ingram: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

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