Pelicans offense kicks into gear during prolific 4-1 stretch

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Suddenly, perimeter shots that had been clanging off the rim are swishing through the net. A sometimes-stagnant offense has found its stride, in the form of ample fast-break opportunities and crisper ball movement that’s generating prolific assist numbers and even bigger point totals. Most importantly, a side of the ball that was a major culprit during a poor recent stretch for the New Orleans Pelicans is now producing wins.

After going just 2-6 immediately after the All-Star break and a blockbuster trade with Sacramento for perennial All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans (29-41) have won four of their last five games, beating Charlotte, Portland, Houston and Minnesota. While the New Orleans defense has been formidable throughout the entire 2016-17 regular season (eighth in defensive efficiency prior to the All-Star break, sixth since), the offense has taken much longer to click. Over the past 10-day, five-game span, however, the Pelicans rank fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (113.6 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com) and are No. 1 in effective field-goal percentage (57.0), a statistic that accounts for every aspect of shooting, including three-pointers and free throws.

During high-scoring weekend home wins over Houston and Minnesota, New Orleans posted its highest and fourth-highest point totals of the campaign, respectively, racking up 128 and 123 points against the Rockets and Timberwolves. The Pelicans ran past the Timberwolves for a 33-13 edge in fast-break points, a staple for a New Orleans team that’s eighth in pace (100.79 possessions per 48 minutes) during the 4-1 stretch.

“We’re trying to play a certain way, the way that we thought we were going to play when we first came (together this season),” said Pelicans forward Solomon Hill, a catalyst on both ends, double-digit points in all four recent wins. “Nothing happens overnight. Our core has been together for a fair amount of time (70 games into 2016-17). We’ve added in some pieces. Now we’re implementing how we want to play. Everybody else has to get accustomed to it.”

Cousins is averaging 18.4 points and 8.6 rebounds over the past five games, while another in-season addition, guard Jordan Crawford, has been a revelation, initially playing on a 10-day contract. Signed March 6 prior to a game at Utah, Crawford scored 19 points just hours after joining the team and has continued to play well ever since. Out of the NBA since the end of the 2013-14 season, the 28-year-old has provided exactly what the Pelicans needed most, averaging 14.3 points off the bench and shooting 51.3 percent from the field (50.0 percent on 19/38 three-point accuracy).

“(Crawford) is making an easy transition for himself. (Cousins) is making an easy transition,” Hill said. “He is playing efficient basketball, and that’s all we ask of anybody. (Anthony Davis) is kind of that guy, but we don’t need anybody to score 45 or anything like that. If you have an efficient night and shoot 50 percent on both ends, for everybody, we go out there and do it together. That’s the best way to win games.”

Davis and Cousins are perennial NBA All-Stars – and guard Jrue Holiday appeared in the 2013 midseason classic – but New Orleans’ offense needed more than that to be productive enough to win games. The Pelicans are now getting many more contributions from the entire roster, highlighted by having six players notch double-digit scoring in four of the last five games. The lone exception? Friday’s win over Houston, when “only” five Pelicans achieved double-figure points.

“I love it. It brings energy,” Holiday said of getting contributions from an array of teammates. “I get excited when other people score. It’s just fun to watch, fun to play.”

An even distribution of shots was best illustrated during Sunday’s win over Minnesota, when five New Orleans players fired between 11 and 16 field-goal attempts. Every member of that quintet shot at least 50 percent from the field, topped by Crawford going 9/13 and Davis at 11/16.

“You’ve got to pick your poison,” Hill said of the dilemma opposing defenses are facing. “AD gets easy buckets in transition, Jrue gets downhill. It’s hard to account for everybody. You have to be a special team to stop multiple guys, especially when they’re rolling. We want to push the pace, we want to run down your neck, we want AD flying in for and-ones, and Jrue getting downhill. That’s what we want. That’s when the game is fun. That pace has to continue to stay with us.”

A faster attack has also led to more assists (New Orleans is averaging 26.6 in the past five games, ranked sixth in the NBA) while turnovers have slightly decreased. The Pelicans are third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio since March 11, at 2.25. Over the past five games, New Orleans has authored its highest-assist game (33 at Charlotte) of the season, as well as its lowest-turnover game (just five vs. Portland).

“Everybody just wants to win. When you play like that, it makes it fun for everybody, a lot easier for everybody,” Davis said. “Guys are stepping up, making big plays. We are gelling and clicking at the right time.”