Pelicans.com postgame: Pelicans 105, Nuggets 89
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
There had been several near-misses, including heartbreaking recent losses to Golden State, Dallas and Portland, but the New Orleans Pelicans still lacked a victory over an opponent with a winning record entering Friday’s game vs. Denver. If the Pelicans are to remain in contention for a playoff berth in the rugged Western Conference deep into the 2014 calendar year, that was a fact that needed to change quickly.
New Orleans (13-14) broke through against Denver behind one of its finest all-around team performances of the season, including six different Pelicans reaching double digits in points. Despite being without starters Eric Gordon (hip) and Jason Smith (knee), along with persistent foul trouble for Anthony Davis that limited him to 28 minutes, the Pelicans posted a relatively comfortable home win. New Orleans outscored Denver (14-14) in each of the first three quarters, building an 81-66 lead. The Nuggets pulled within as close as six points in the fourth period, but a final Pelicans surge put the game away in the final few minutes.
Although one of Denver’s biggest strengths in its post-Carmelo Anthony era has been roster depth, New Orleans’ second unit enjoyed a 36-17 scoring edge Friday. Tyreke Evans continued his excellent play since returning from injury on Dec. 18, threatening a triple-double with 19 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists. Evans posted his second career triple-double Dec. 18 against the Clippers, just three games ago. In Monday’s win at Sacramento, the sixth man notched 25 points and 12 assists against many of his former Kings teammates.
“It was great to get contributions from so many guys,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “We got a lift from our bench defensively. (The game) looked ugly at times, but defense helps you win in an ugly game. I’m really pleased with the fact that we held a team to 40 percent shooting from the field, and 44 points in the second half. Those are things we can hang our hat on and give ourselves a chance to win.”
En route to their second straight win, the Pelicans jumped on the Nuggets quickly by scoring 34 points in the first quarter. The early burst set the tone for a game in which New Orleans shot 47 percent from the field, including 11-for-24 three-point shooting. Denver never led.
“We just came out and threw the first punch,” Evans said. “We just kept it up for the entire game.”
Joining Evans in producing off the bench was second-year small forward Darius Miller, whose 11 points represented the second-double digit scoring game of his career. Miller compiled a 16-point game as a rookie, also against Denver.
“Darius is a really smart player,” said Ryan Anderson (16 points, 10 rebounds). “He’s a guy who plays like he’s been around for a long time. He obviously can shoot the ball. It’s a tough thing to come into a game after maybe not playing so much before or coming back from an injury. I feel really proud of him. He played really well tonight.”
Through three quarters, Evans and Miller had outscored Denver’s bench 21-2 by themselves. Miller finished the game 3-for-4 from three-point range and got his 11 points on just those four total shot attempts.
Over his four-game return from injury, Evans has played his best basketball as a Pelican, averaging 9.5 assists and serving as a major catalyst for a New Orleans bench that lost Anderson’s contributions when Anderson was moved to a starting role. Evans started slowly in 2013-14, something Williams attributed to the ankle injuries that hurt Evans’ conditioning and prevented him from playing consistently.
“He’s probably feeling better (physically),” Williams said. “Those things affect you, and your rhythm is off. He’s getting into a rhythm, and I think guys are understanding how to play with him. He has the ability to create for other people.”
Friday’s performance was the kind of teamwide balance the Pelicans will need over the next few days in matchups against elite Western Conference opponents. Immediately after the win, they traveled to Houston to face the Rockets in a Saturday 7 p.m. game. On Monday, the Pelicans will host the Portland Trail Blazers, one of the NBA’s premier teams so far in 2013-14.
“I’ve got about an hour or so to enjoy this,” Williams said, a few minutes after his team evened its season series with Denver at 1-1. “Then I’ve got to get ready for the Houston game.”