The one play that explains the Pelicans’ loss to the Knicks

Josh Hart, New York Knicks. Jose Alvarado, New Orleans Pelicans. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Josh Hart, New York Knicks. Jose Alvarado, New Orleans Pelicans. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

This Zion Williamson-less version of the New Orleans Pelicans is far from a perfect bunch, and in any given loss, there are a myriad of reasons one can point to for why they came out with fewer points than the opposition.

In many ways, last night’s game against the New York Knicks was no different. But there was one feature of the game that was largely outside of their control that contributed a great deal to their blowout loss. To explain this, let’s turn to a seemingly insignificant possession from the second quarter.

For those of you who don’t feel like watching, here’s a step-by-step recap of what just happened:

  1. Trey Murphy III gears up to help Jonas Valanciunas on the backline, but ultimately doesn’t need to act on it because the big man does a great job of recovering after the initial ballscreen.
  2. Josh Richardson is aggressively trying to deny Julius Randle the ball, both because of the size mismatch and because doing so delays the action and causes offensive stagnation.
  3. Randle catches the ball and tries to use a dribble handoff action to compel a switch onto the even frailer Murphy. But Richardson and Murphy refuse to let this happen, choosing to work together to help the latter fight over the screen instead of giving up the automatic switch.
  4. Richardson uses a three-quarter fronting technique to make the catch harder and force Randle toward the baseline so that, if he does end up catching it, he and Valanciunas can trap him in the corner.
  5. Randle catches it in the post, and Valanciunas comes to double. That means Brandon Ingram has to rotate over to take Valanciunas’ man (Mitchell Robinson), and CJ McCollum is now responsible for zoning up both Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart on the weak side of the floor.
  6. Brunson cuts into the paint. This forces McCollum to tag him and means that Murphy has to make the long closeout over to Hart in the corner.
  7. Murphy does this and keeps Hart in front of him the entire time. But how do the basketball gods reward him? With a contested jumper being drained in his face at the end of the shot clock.

The point here is that the Pelicans’ did everything right on that possession, and it didn’t even matter. The Knicks’ shot-making was just better.

Basketball analytics pioneer Dean Oliver once posited that there are Four Factors that explain why the outcome of a specific game played out the way it did.

The factor that holds the most weight (what he estimates is about 40%) of the four statistical areas is shooting, which he measures using effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Well, last night, the Knicks’ eFG% was 61.9%, nearly 19 percentage points higher than the Pelicans’ 43.1% mark.

To make matters worse, the Knicks usually aren’t that great of a shooting team. On the season, they average an eFG% of 53%, which is 23rd in the NBA. So that means they were especially hot last night against the Pelicans.

New Orleans definitely made mistakes that added to their 22-point demise, but for the most part, their defensive process was actually really good. It’s just that the Knicks’ shot-making was unstoppable. And as coaches at any level will tell you, that’s just something you have to live with.