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Lonzo Ball passing, defense helping to spark New Orleans’ dramatic in-season turnaround

Jrue Holiday tried to deliver a crosscourt pass Friday to an open Brandon Ingram, but Holiday’s feed didn’t quite have enough velocity to reach Ingram at the three-point line. It was easily picked off.

Fortunately for New Orleans, that would not be recorded as a turnover on the stat sheet, because the intercepting player was actually a Pelicans teammate. Quick-thinking Lonzo Ball stepped in and – in one motion – “relayed” Holiday’s pass to Ingram for a wide-open shot. Ingram drained it for three points and New Orleans continued to roll, en route to a commanding 116-104 win over Cleveland.

When asked about the play after Friday’s victory, Holiday couldn’t help but smile as he recapped the unusual sequence of relying on a “cut-off man” to get the ball to first-time All-Star Ingram.

“Are you talking about the (play) where I tried to pass it to B.I.?” Holiday asked a reporter rhetorically. “That was cool. I didn’t know Lonzo saw (Ingram) there. But Lonzo sees everything.”

During New Orleans’ staggering transformation following a 6-22 start to the season, Pelicans players have often used a similar description of their starting point guard, who handed out 12 assists against the Cavaliers. Once again demonstrating his value to a New Orleans team that has gone 20-11 since its early struggles, Ball tallied just five points vs. Cleveland, but set an immediate tone by dishing five of his assists in the first 3:53 of the game. On the defensive end, he was disruptive throughout his 35 minutes of action, grabbing six rebounds while posting four steals and two blocks.

“He jump-started our offense today, finding open guys on the perimeter, pushing in transition and getting easy baskets, he made it a lot easier,” Ingram said of Ball’s distribution. “We’re finding our offense all over the floor.”

“It’s been fun,” Holiday said of seeing Ball’s impact. “He had five assists in the first three minutes, off transition passes. Makes it pretty easy. All you have to do is get open. If you have an advantage and get in front of your (defender), he’ll make the right decision, the right play.”

Friday’s 12 dimes upped Ball’s 2019-20 assist average to 6.9, which ranks 12th in the NBA. His passing serves as a bit of a barometer for his team’s success, because the Pelicans are 16-11 when he exceeds that average, but just 6-18 when he does not (he missed eight November games due to injury). Since Ball permanently moved into the New Orleans starting lineup Dec. 23, the Pelicans rank fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (114.6 points per 100 possessions), second in assist percentage (66.0) and first in three-point percentage (39.1). Over those two-plus months, New Orleans has six players averaging double-digit scoring – including Ball himself at 12.6 points – as well as a whopping nine players putting up at least 8.3 ppg.

“I have options in every situation: Halfcourt, fast break, post-ups,” Ball said of NOLA’s complement of weapons. “I have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things.

“We have a lot of people who can score, but we only have one basketball, so we’ve got to share it.

I think it’s only going to get better. We just got our team back (upon Zion Williamson’s Jan. 22 debut), so hopefully we can make this playoff push.”

Williamson has added another multi-dimensional threat over his 14 games played, quickly developing an on-court connection with Ball. The point guard wasted no time Friday lofting lengthy first-quarter passes to Williamson, who was already a matchup problem for the Cavaliers, but raced to three buckets in the initial 2:47, all off Ball assists.

“Right before the game I looked at Lonzo and said, ‘I’m running. If you throw it, I’m going to catch it,’ ” Williamson explained of the barrage of early run-outs. “He took that literally and started bombing them. That’s the great part about Lonzo – he shows his IQ for the game. For him to come in every game, with the threats and depth we have, to facilitate the offense, you have to respect it. Hats off to him – he does a great job of it.”