NBA Summer League: Pelicans 83, D-League 81

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

LAS VEGAS – In the lead-up to the beginning of his NBA career, many observers – including his own summer league head coach – noted that watching Russ Smith play should be an entertaining experience. After all, Smith’s devil-may-care exploits at the University of Louisville led Cardinals coach Rick Pitino to coin the nickname “Russdiculous,” in an attempt to describe the guard’s unique style.

It took Smith all of one pro game to live up to his famous moniker.

After struggling through a shaky opening half Friday, the rookie piled up 16 second-half points to spearhead New Orleans (1-0) to a stunning comeback victory. Smith registered a team-best 20 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. The Pelicans trailed the D-League Select team by 17 points with four-plus minutes remaining and were still down 79-68 with 3:15 to go, but went on a game-closing 15-2 run. Josh Carter drained the game-winning shot, a three-pointer from the left wing that was set up by Smith’s pinpoint crosscourt pass. Carter sank his trey with 3.0 seconds left; the D-League was unable to get off a desperate shot prior to the final buzzer. As the horn sounded, Pelicans players celebrated on the Thomas & Mack Center hardwood (pictured above) as though it were a regular-season victory.

“That was crazy,” Smith said of the rally, which included a 26-14 fourth-quarter edge. “It reminded me a little bit of college, the way everyone got hyped. It was just phenomenal. I’m just glad we all stepped up, played some defense and were able to come out with a victory.”

Although Smith was the center of attention after Friday’s win – including being interviewed by NBA TV sideline reporter Ric Bucher – there were a multitude of other key Pelicans. Eight different New Orleans players scored at least six points, including:

* Undrafted rookie forward/center Patric Young, one of the few Pelicans who played well during the first three-plus quarters. The Florida product finished with a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) despite logging only 19 minutes off the bench. “He’s a beast,” Smith said. “Typical Pat Young. I’m just happy he came through. He definitely helped us on the glass and gave us toughness in the paint.”

* Ten-year NBA veteran forward Josh Howard, who tallied all of his 14 points in the initial three periods, some much-needed offense. New Orleans trailed 43-31 at halftime and 67-57 through three quarters.

* Rookie guard Cameron Ayers, who drained two ultra-clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter. The Bucknell product’s second trifecta put the Pelicans in front 80-79 with just 26 seconds remaining.

In addition to the sudden late-game New Orleans offensive eruption, Smith credited the Pelicans’ defense for clamping down against the previously hot-shooting D-League. The D-League still finished 8-for-15 on treys Friday.

“Our defensive intensity in the fullcourt (improved significantly), and then our defensive execution in the halfcourt,” Smith said. “We did a good job of helping each other, and we stopped giving up offensive rebounds. Everything (improved) – communication, rotation, the psyche as a whole. We all chipped in, even the bench. The coaches did a phenomenal job keeping us in it.”

Smith's NBA debut included the dizzying final statistical line of 20 points, nine rebounds (five offensive), five assists, three steals, five fouls, six turnovers and 3-for-7 foul shooting (uncharacteristic of a career 76.0 percent shooter). But just like throughout his college career, which included a national title and two Final Four appearances, the end result still was a win.

"It was a whole team effort, along with myself," Smith said. "I just love to win. I’ll do anything to win. Whatever I had to throw out on the table, that’s what I did."