Collapse, when used as a noun, is defined as “a sudden failure of an institution or undertaking”, and that sounds exactly like what I watched last night in Portland. The Pelicans, who led by 17 points with just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter, gave up a 25-7 to Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, and lost 125-124 in spectacular fashion after being given every opportunity to salt the game away.
In the waning seconds New Orleans would miss a pair of free throws, turn the ball over on a sideline out of bounds play and the commit a shooting foul up by a point on Lillard’s game-winning attempt. The mistakes were avoidable, the symptom of a young team, or a poorly coached one. Regardless, it should not have come as a surprise that the team with the 22nd-ranked net rating in clutch time (-8.6) folded under the relentless pressure of a veteran team like Portland.
The loss now puts the Pelicans two full games behind the Grizzlies for the final play-in spot with 32 games left to play. Last night, as the Pelicans were collapsing in the Pacific Northwest, The Night Cap co-host Matt Holt asked me if I believed New Orleans could make a second-half push into the postseason. I cited their poor defense as a reason why I did not believe this team had that kind of a run in them, and their defensive rating of 172.0 in the fourth quarter last night is a beautiful example of why I am so down on this Pelicans team.
For those who do not believe defense matters in the NBA anymore, may I present to you the New Orleans Pelicans? A team that has the seventh-best offense in non-garbage time minutes (117.1), but the 20th net rating (-0.6) and a 17-23 record because of a defense that gives up 117.7 points every 100 possessions. Defense matters in this league, and that is why the Pelicans are likely going to be home once the season ends, despite an expanded play-in tournament format.
The Main Event
Milwaukee Bucks (-4.5, 235.5) at Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia comes into tonight on a 6-0 SU/5-1 ATS run overall, but the story is their previous two contests which have been played with Joel Embiid. The 76ers have won both games without the MVP frontrunner, blowing out the Spurs and coming back to defeat the Knicks just last night. Through those two games Philadelphia held both opponents to under 100 points and just 1.01 points per possession. The 76ers perimeter defense contained New York and San Antonio, forcing them to go a combined 12-of-45 (26.6%) from beyond the arc. Philadelphia has always been a force defensively – They have the fourth-best defensive efficiency mark in the league at 109.3 points per 100 possessions – and their defense over these two games has been remarkable. But, it is one thing to do it as a short-handed unit against the 18th- and 24th-ranked offenses. Can you do it against Milwaukee?
The Bucks come in on 4-0 SU/2-2 ATS run of their own with an offense that has averaged 1.214 points per possession, and dropped at least 125 points in each game, since coming back from the All-Star break. It’s pretty clear Philadelphia will be tested here, and an area to watch tonight will be within four feet of the basket. In the two games without Embiid, while they have performed very well overall, the 76ers have had trouble keeping their two opponents out of the paint. The Spurs and Knicks combined to shoot 35-of-48 at the rim (72.9%) while drawing 10 shooting fouls and scoring 100 points in the paint. New York killed Philadelphia inside by shooting 83.3% on its 24 attempts within four feet, and struggling to keep teams out of the painted area does not bode well for a matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo. With the Greek Freak on the floor Milwaukee takes 35.5% of their attempts at the rim and shoots 71.9% as a team. On the season, Philadelphia ranks sixth in rim defense, but that includes minutes with Embiid on the floor. When he is off the floor they give up 64.3% within four feet which would put them at 20th if that is what they allowed on the season.