Devin Booker’s 52-point outburst leaves Pelicans at another crossroads as playoffs approach



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NEW ORLEANS — In the aftermath of a historic performance by Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker and another crushing loss at home, New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green repeatedly uttered the one word a team never wants to hear from its head coach.

“Quite frankly, we were soft guarding him,” Green said of the Pelicans’ defense in Monday’s 124-111 loss to Phoenix. “We just had a soft mentality.”

“Soft” was one of many words that could describe the Pelicans as they surrendered 52 points to Booker, including 37 in the first half, in a game with massive postseason stakes for both teams.

“Embarrassing” is another good word for the Pelicans’ performance. “Demoralizing” also accurately portrays the scene at Smoothie King Center as the Suns snatched a 20-point lead in the first quarter and maintained control the rest of the night. But “humiliation” was the shared emotion of Pelicans fans and players as Booker again tore them to shreds on their home court.

Booker now joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to register three consecutive games of at least 50 points against a single opponent, per ESPN Stats and Info. Booker scored 52 points on Jan. 19 during his visit to Smoothie King Center earlier this season, a little more than a year after he scored 58 on the Pels in Phoenix in December 2022. That adds up to a combined 162 points over Booker’s last three games against the Pelicans.

When asked about Booker’s 52-point performance in January during a news conference before Monday’s game, Green laughed and said he’d rather forget. Booker made sure the Pelicans will never forget now.

“They came out with a lot of pace and a lot of energy,” Pels forward Trey Murphy said. “(Booker) hit some tough shots, but we contributed a lot to it as well.”

Murphy’s assessment of Booker’s night can also be a microcosm of the Pelicans’ current state. They have lost three of their last four games to begin the most important homestand of the season. In a vacuum, there’s no shame in losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics or Suns on any given night. Two of those teams are in first place in their respective conferences, and the Suns began the season with legitimate NBA title aspirations.

However, the clear advantages all three teams had in physicality, execution and game-planning are alarming as New Orleans enters the final seven games of the regular season. This Pelicans team, which had its eye on the No. 4 seed a week ago, suddenly finds itself fighting just to stay out of the Play-In Tournament for the third season in a row. They’ve dropped to sixth place with a 45-30 record, just one game ahead of the Suns (44-31), who now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The way the Pelicans have executed over the last few games does not look like a team fighting for its spot in the playoffs.

It’s undoubtedly hurt the Pelicans to be without Brandon Ingram for the last six games as he recovers from a knee injury. Jose Alvarado’s absence over the last three due to an oblique strain has also drained some of the juice out of the team. However, this group has enough depth to withstand a few injuries here and there, even to some of the most critical players on the roster.

“The resiliency is at a high level, but our margin for error is small without (Ingram) and without (Alvarado),” Green said. “We’re missing 20-plus points and our leader in assists.”

Successfully navigating team and individual adversity has been a theme of this Pelicans season so far. They had multiple “players-only” meetings that got them past their early-season struggles. Their In-Season Tournament semifinal debacle fueled Zion Williamson’s second-half surge. Now, they’ll need to find one more response to stem this current downslide. Otherwise, with a game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday and a trip to Phoenix on Sunday, the Pelicans could realistically find themselves back in Play-In territory at the start of next week.

“We need to respond. … We know these next seven games are going to be crucial, especially at home,” Pelicans guard Dyson Daniels said. “We need to show we can defend our home floor and not let teams come in here and kick our a**.”

That starts with Williamson, who has begun to see opponents use a new blueprint to slow him down. While Williamson finished Monday’s loss with 30 points and five assists, Phoenix kept him contained and threw multiple bodies at him every time he attacked the basket.

The Suns followed the Celtics’ game plan to leave the other New Orleans big (Larry Nance Jr. or Jonas Valančiūnas) to park a center at the rim and wait for Williamson whenever he decides to attack the paint. Just look at how much Suns center Jusuf Nurkić is going out of his way to ignore Valančiūnas on this play.

As the Pelicans’ centers have continued to struggle and opponents have crowded the paint even more, Green has increasingly leaned into lineups featuring Williamson at center in hopes of creating more space for his best player.

“They did a great job of just keeping (a center) at the rim and shadowing Zion everywhere he went,” Green said. “He figured it out throughout the course of the game, but we may have to get more to a small unit to make sure they have to guard us.”

Against Boston, Green chose to sit both Nance and Valančiūnas the entire fourth quarter as the Pels attempted to make a late comeback. On Monday, Green played Nance and Valančiūnas for a combined seven minutes in the fourth quarter, then deployed the Zion-at-five lineup as the Pels made another late push that fell short.

It’ll be interesting to see how much more Green goes with smaller lineups, especially as the minutes involving Valančiūnas and Nance each continue to provide diminishing returns. In the end, the Pelicans could end up being in a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation, sacrificing defensive rebounding and rim protection to prevent centers like Nurkić and Kristaps Porziņģis from camping in the lane. But as long as Ingram is injured, the Pels must do whatever it takes to put Williamson in the best position to succeed.

“The biggest thing for us when we have (Zion) at the five is rebounding,” Murphy said. “When we’re able to rebound, then, offensively, teams aren’t able to guard us. There’s just so much space on the court and Z is able to operate and get to wherever he wants to.”

Even if Green does not deploy small lineups more often, New Orleans must make one slight counter it flashed on Monday a more significant part of its game plan. When teams leave their centers in the lane and ignore Nance or Valančiūnas, one way the Pelicans can attack is to swing the ball to that big on the opposite wing and have them go directly into a quick dribble handoff for a shooter before their man can recover.

Here’s an example involving Nance on Monday. Even though Murphy missed the 3-pointer, this was still a good shot that came from quality ball and body movement:

These plays could lead to open 3s or create clearer driving lanes for players like Murphy, Jordan Hawkins or CJ McCollum. The more Williamson trusts his teammates and makes the easy pass when defenses are loading up on him, the easier it’ll be to sneak in a few baskets from the opposite side when teams shift their attention to the ball.

The Pels will need to continue thinking outside the box, at least until Ingram and Alvarado return. Williamson’s reliance on scoring in the paint requires them to find creative ways to free up the space under the basket he needs.

“Teams have been doing that (coverage) to us, and it’s been working. We need to trust the pass,” Daniels said. “We need to make sure whoever’s in the big (spot) is making decisive decisions, whether it be connecting, setting screens and getting other people open or cutting at times. … There are a lot of ways you can punish (that coverage); we just need to be better at it.”

Such is life this time of the year, when the opponents get better and the games matter most. The Pels had to experience that ramp-up without their best player the last two seasons. Now, it’s Williamson’s turn to adjust as opponents sharpen their focus with the playoffs on the horizon.

(Top photo: Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)





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