For at least one night, the New Orleans Pelicans showed the rest of the NBA world that they still believe.
The Pelicans obliterated the Memphis Grizzlies by a score of 105-85 on MLK Day, outscoring their reeling Western Conference rival by 27 points over the final three quarters. During those 36 minutes, New Orleans defense was genuinely solid — the Grizzlies shot 28.9% from the field in the second half and scored 85 points for the game (!), the Pelicans scoring was balanced — four players topped 20 points, and the rotation received a good and timely boost in the form of Jahlil Okafor.
Coming into the game, the Memphis Grizzlies were considered 2.5-point favorites, and after the first quarter one figured Las Vegas was going to regret not making the spread larger. However, after the Grizzlies converted five of their 11 looks from deep — and the Pelicans failed to even hit on one of seven shots from three-point range, the tides shifted immensely. Jrue Holiday and Okafor led the comeback charge in the second quarter by combining for 21 points and 8 rebounds in the frame.
With Anthony Davis out for the next 1-2 weeks, head coach Alvin Gentry decided to give Okafor the start rather than force the defensively shaky tandem of Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle together. Immediately upon hearing the news, Chevy Chase sprang to mind from the scene in Spies Like Us in which he tells his Russian captors in a sly but happy tone, “Good move, good move, headquarters.”
Jahlil Okafor was seriously such a breath of fresh air. He utilized his size to dominate the paint, finishing with his first double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks) in nearly two years (2/25/2017), and his 35 minutes of action easily set a new season-high. The guy can definitely play — as we’ve witnessed on more than several occasions in glimpses, but tonight’s effort was so fantastic from start to finish that hopefully he won’t be marginalized again once the three bigs ahead of him are fully healthy.
Following the game, Holiday had this to say to the TNT broadcast crew about Okafor and the rest of the team needing to step up in the absence of Anthony Davis.
“With Anthony out, man, everybody has to do their part,” said Holiday. “Anthony does so much for us where he rebounds, he scores, he assists. We were a little down today probably because he was out, but everybody had to step up and play more physical. We have to get into the paint because of how physical they are.”
New Orleans tallied 48 points in the paint on the night, outscoring the Grizzlies by six in that area, and had 26 free throw attempts to Memphis’ 17. They were clearly the stronger aggressors and that was crucial in a game which featured a pace about eight possessions less than what the Pelicans are accustomed to. New Orleans scored only six fastbreak points thanks to the established Grit and Grind pace, but what’s normally a red flag for the Pelicans, wasn’t.
Elfrid Payton is usually the engine that drives the pace to Gentry’s liking, yet he’s been in a bit of funk lately. Payton got off to another slow start as evidenced by some early careless decisions and wild shots, but he rebounded nicely in the second half to see more than 30 minutes of action for just the second time since returning from a broken finger. Elf finished with nine points, three rebounds, four assists and a couple of steals but it was fun to see that his only made three-pointer on the night proved to be the dagger.
Julius Randle (20 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, two steals, seven turnovers) and Nikola Mirotic (21 points, six rebounds, five threes, two blocks) made their marks, but in different ways. Randle carried the offense in an ugly first quarter (seven points) and he definitely had some good moments afterwards, but you hate seeing that high number of turnovers. In a game that’s moving slowly, both Payton and Holiday are alongside and the offense is humming along nicely, it would be nice to see Randle rein it in a bit with trying to create something out of nothing — it’s not often needed.
As for Mirotic, he was seemingly the only member of the Pelicans who could drain an outside shot, and once he got going, New Orleans quickly seized control of this game. Niko canned five of his 12 attempts from deep and even went down into the post a few times when he was matched up against a smaller defender. Mirotic is the savvy to Randle’s brawn. While both are solid contributors most nights, they’re at their best when they mix in the right amount of aggressiveness with the flow of the game around them.
Lastly, this recap wouldn’t be complete without accolading Jrue Holiday’s performance (21 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals). As mentioned, he and Okafor sparked the Pelicans turnaround in the second quarter, but it was nice to see Jrue in attack mode throughout and looking confidently to score first. Sometimes his game tends to get into trouble when he’s stuck initiating the offense too much. He’ll wind up deferring by trying to force the ball elsewhere, leading to too many poor possessions, rather than just focusing on putting the ball through the hoop. On this night though, zero such problems — even if he did make just two of six free throws.
When asked about his splendid play in the Pelicans big win without Davis, Holiday said he just tries to “lead by example. Go out there and make the right plays. When something needs to be said, I’ll usually say it. I don’t try and talk too much.”
That’s Jrue and we love him... As likely did fans who watched New Orleans dismantle a poor Grizzlies team. Nevertheless, give credit where credit is due. Once the Pelicans worked out those first-quarter kinks, the effort, both on offense and defense, was a nice change of pace of the too many lulls witnessed against the Portland Trail Blazers last Friday.
Can they bottle this performance up and follow it with another well-rounded game next time out? Guess we’ll find out Wednesday, when New Orleans returns home from a five-game road trip and welcomes the Detroit Pistons.