The New Orleans Pelicans secured back-to-back victories for the first time since Nov. 19 and displayed an energy Monday night not often seen on the Smoothie King Center floor.
Make no mistake – colliding with the College Football National Championship for the second year in a row, this matchup did not feature a sellout crowd. And the on-court dilemmas that have burdened the Pelicans didn’t quite disappear either. Still, New Orleans found a way to make the necessary adjustments — behind Anthony Davis’ game-high 36 points — to gain a 114-95 win over the Memphis Grizzlies and continue feeding momentum into the optimists view of the road ahead.
“When we play the right way, and defend the way we did tonight, we’re a tough team to beat,” Davis said. “I told the guys before the game, just because we played Cleveland that way defensively, we’ve got to do the same thing no matter who our opponent is. We got back to being scrappy a little bit defensively and we’ve got to do that for the rest of the season.”
The five-time All-Star scored 19 points in the first quarter alone to carry New Orleans, but the Grizzlies were able to remain within striking distance by adding 16 points off Pelicans turnovers and dictating the pace through the halfway point. In a close game, the Crescent City offense fell stagnant and its attack faded away from Davis.
Shortly after halftime, things continued to look ominous as head coach Alvin Gentry was forced to take a timeout to reset his team’s mindset as Memphis connected with a 9-2 scoring jab to start the third frame. Gentry’s squad found its requisite tunnel vision, limiting mistakes and holding the opposition to 13 points for the remainder of the period. The dominating play from that point forward, including a 15-0 run, silenced Memphis and propelled New Orleans to its largest margin of victory over a conference rival since a 132-106 drubbing of the Mavericks in early December.
The impact of Elfrid Payton’s return is undeniable. New Orleans averages over 125 points per game and sports a 7-1 record when Payton (11pts-4ast-3stl vs MEM) plays at least 20 minutes this season. His backcourt partner, Jrue Holiday, ended with 13 points, six assists, four rebounds and four steals.
Perhaps the most pleasant development of the night, a couple of young guns off the bench provided a massive boost as well. Frank Jackson established a new career high of 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and Jahlil Okafor added nine points and seven boards.
“Obviously, Jahlil [Okafor] and Frank [Jackson] came in – the Duke contingent came in – and then did a real good job for us,” Alvin Gentry said. “I thought Frank was really aggressive and probably played his best game overall from the standpoint of what he did, defensively and then offensively. Jah has just been really solid for us. He gives us a guy to throw the ball in to. He’s probably rebounding better than he – you know, I don’t even know how many rebounds he had – but I know that he’s rebounding better than he ever has since he’s been in the league or really in college.”
Moving forward, New Orleans has to maintain focus, concentrating on only the next matchup, or else this mountain between them and a playoff berth could become impossible to scale. For a 5-16 road team, the idea of a five-game Western Conference road trip starting at week’s end could derail the rest of the season. Add two more back-to-backs after that with a total of seven games against current playoff teams just to end the month of January, and the tune doesn’t start to get any sweeter. Nonetheless, it’s the predicament the Pelicans are faced with and there’s no time left to do anything but respond.
“We know that we belong in the postseason,” Davis said. “We’re going to continue to play that way, but we’ve got to do it for a full 48 minutes. We can’t come out and turn the ball over or play cool. We’ve got to have desperation when we play on the floor, and we did that in the second half.”
Up next: New Orleans welcomes the Cleveland Cavaliers - Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. CT