The New Orleans Pelicans had a not-so-typical night at the office. A 116-109 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday evening was far from the team’s best but still managed to turn into the team’s first 3-0 start since the 2010-11 season.
Los Angeles entered this matchup ranked 27th in pace and fourth in defensive rating. It was a rough night for the New Orleans offense from the start, lacking ball movement, transition opportunities and outside shooting throughout. The game became a recipe calling for grit, and that’s exactly what the Pelicans answered with.
“We didn’t have the zip that we normally have,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “I didn’t think we pushed the basketball. I thought we played at about 75 percent from the standpoint of getting out and pushing it and running it. Although we had a lot of points in the paint, we didn’t get a lot of easy baskets initially in our transition, and that’s because I didn’t think we ran very hard and I didn’t think our cuts were very hard tonight.”
Anthony Davis led the charge with 34 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Elfrid Payton, in a performance that topped his opening night triple-double, finished with 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals. Nikola Mirotic added 18 points and 12 boards himself, but he and Jrue Holiday combined to shoot 27 percent from the field and 0-of-10 behind the arc.
Shooting struggles extended all around, as New Orleans made just 40 field goals after averaging 54 through the first two contests. The Pelicans went 6-of-24 from deep, but it was the defense and consistency at the free throw line that set them apart. A year ago, this team averaged 21 free throw attempts per game. More than that were seen in the first half alone against Los Angeles (40 total on the night) and helped salvage matters in the three-ball’s absence.
“We know that it’s not going to fall as much as we’d like every night,” Davis said. “Those are the games where you have to go rely on defense, and we were able to do that. When we play defense, get stops and runs, see the ball go through the rim, get to the line and make free throws, you just get in a rhythm and now you’re even more confident to shoot the three.”
The Clippers did everything they could to remain in contention, trailing by five within the final two minutes. However, Davis and point guard Elfrid Payton had different plans. Julius Randle had just fouled out in an attempt to grab an offensive rebound, and Los Angeles was clawing back. To keep the game clinched, Davis and Payton both hit dagger three-point shots in the time that remained to hold off any notion of a comeback.
Payton’s confidence on his shot, just his second made three of the season, was somewhat of a surprise. Gentry expressed he was very pleased with the shot after the game, knowing that the hometown kid is still adjusting to what the team expects from him. Payton finished with 21 points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals.
Another surprise contributor on the night was Solomon Hill, who finished with two points, three rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks in 21 minutes. After Randle fouled out, Gentry finished the game with Hill, apparently opting for his defense over Niko’s offense.
It was a much different fight than what the Pelicans had seen in the first two games of this season. Nonetheless, the group found a way to pull it out. Tough shooting nights come and go, and New Orleans – whether it’s pretty or not – hopes to grow with these experiences.
“We’re starting to see ourselves win in different ways with three different types of teams,” Davis added. “One that’s scrappy tonight, one that likes to run and another one that’s a young that likes to play hard. It’s good for us to get three wins, especially the way that we’re getting them. It’s not always going to be perfect, but we’ll take every one we can.”
Up next, the Pelicans will welcome the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night inside the Smoothie King Center.