NEW ORLEANS – Though their still exists a slight chance that the Pelicans can earn a spot in the playoffs, the most likely scenario is that New Orleans is playing out the string and preparing for next season.
Now with seven wins in their last 10 games, the Pelicans are creating a renewed sense of optimism for fans and themselves.
New Orleans began its final home stand of the season by hanging on to defeat the Dallas Mavericks 121-118.
Anthony Davis led the way with 30 points and 13 boards, becoming the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 to accomplish that feat. DeMarcus Cousins was right behind with 29 points while grabbing a game-high 16 boards and handing out six assists. Jrue Holiday finished with 18 points and 7 assists.
Dante Cunningham and Jordan Crawford scored 15 points each off the Pelicans’ bench. Crawford has now reached double figures in 11 of 12 games since joining the team.
Dirk Nowitzki had team-high 23 points for the Mavs, who fell a half game behind New Orleans in the Western Conference standings with the loss.
The Pelicans’ defense, which had been stout for most of the season, twice let double-digit second-half leads slip away as it allowed the Mavericks to put up 67 points after the break.
However, the team’s offense was there to pick up the slack all night. New Orleans topped 50 percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the three-point line. The team also finished with just six turnovers, with no player giving the ball away more than once.
The Pelicans improved to 8-0 when scoring 120 points or more this season, with four of those wins coming since the Cousins trade.
“It was an ugly win,” said Cousins. “We’re better than that, especially defensively. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about the win, that’s all that ever matters. I also know we could have done a lot better job and made the game easier on ourselves.”
Dallas tried to beat the Pelicans by going small for long stretches of the game, sometimes putting four guards on the floor, but Alvin Gentry stuck with his big men to pull out the win.
“We’re not the team to take our bigs out because they have a small lineup,” said Gentry. “I don’t understand that anyway. We’re going to take advantage of what we have versus what they’re trying to do offensively by having a smaller lineup.”
“Obviously, we have to adjust defensively (when other teams go small),” added Holiday. “But offensively, what five man could honestly guard DeMarcus or AD? If you put in a four, or a three or anybody else on them, it’s definitely in our favor.”
The Mavericks didn’t really have an adjustment on the defensive end. Nerlens Noel, Dwight Powell and Nowitzki each took their shots at guarding Cousins and Davis, with none having any real success.
“They are a tough combo,” said Nowitzki. “They are tough together and they stagger their minutes. When one guy is out, the other guy is featured and they are both franchise players. Once they have a full training camp under them next year, if they stay healthy they are going to be a load.”
Cousins echoed those sentiments after the game. “I know it’s the small ball era, but I think we have two non-traditional big men and we can kinda use that to our advantage, especially when it comes to small lineups. I think we’ve got a chance to change things; change the way the style of play of basketball is going right now…It’s just a matter of time.”
A big key for that has been Cousins and Davis understanding each other. Beyond the Xs and Os of practice, the two have worked on their on-court relationship to make sure they both succeed. They also both understand the pressure of carrying a franchise on their shoulders, something Cousins is glad to share.
“I think we both eased up the pressure on each other,” Cousins added. “In the past (in Sacramento) there were games where I just felt there were a hundred people just hanging all over me. Since I’ve been here I’m seeing new defensive schemes I’ve never seen in my career before and I notice that with AD and vice versa. I definitely think we’ve eased the pressure on one another and we’re a little more free out there but it’s still the same type of responsibility.”
“They for sure have a groove,” Holiday said. “They pass to each other like they’ve done this before. Things are a lot easier when you see a person diving, one person popping, and they’re definitely figuring that out, and it makes it easier.”
Now with seven games to go, whether the Pelicans make the postseason or not, they will use the rest of the season to hopefully build on their recent successes heading into next season.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t make it (to the playoffs), we can still use this as an opportunity to learn one another, to get better every game and use this as a training camp…before training camp,” said Cousins.
“We’re still playing to win games,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t matter what the playoff situation is, we’re playing to win and we just gotta keep competing and trying to get better. We want to be playing our best basketball when we play the last game of the season.”