Pelicans shootaround update presented by HUB International: Houston presents major defensive challenge for New Orleans

by Jim Eichenhofer

The combinations of key players in uniform for New Orleans has changed from game to game, but in three matchups vs. Houston over the past 12 months, one thing has remained the same: The Rockets have presented big-time problems for the Pelicans at the defensive end. In New Orleans’ first game after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last February, Houston racked up 129 points in the Smoothie King Center; in the only meeting so far of 2017-18, the Rockets registered 130 points in the Toyota Center vs. the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans. Even in NOLA’s March victory last season over its Southwest Division rival – which occurred without Cousins – Houston managed to tally 112 points, making its average 123.7 points in the three most recent encounters.

The good news for New Orleans (26-21) entering Friday’s ESPN national broadcast is that the Pelicans will have both Davis and Cousins in uniform. In the Dec. 11 visit to Texas, Davis’ injury absence helped result in four Pelicans starters logging in the neighborhood of 40 or more minutes. Among only nine players in uniform for New Orleans in that back-to-back game, two were players on two-way contracts.

“Maybe (having) a couple more bodies,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said of what could help his team this time vs. Houston (34-12). “I think the whole starting five played maybe 40 minutes (on Dec. 11), which I feel like is not to our advantage.”

Holiday also listed ending quarters effectively as a key vs. Houston, which overcame a second-half deficit Dec. 11. New Orleans led 103-96 through three periods, but was outscored 34-20 by the hosts.

“In the third quarter, we were up a lot, but Chris Paul got off in the last two minutes of that quarter,” Holiday said. “(Also) stopping them in transition, because I think that’s how they got most of their threes. That’s going to be very, very key tonight.” …

Friday’s game marks the first time since the team’s Oct. 20 home opener that the Pelicans have appeared on national TV in the Smoothie King Center. There are few tickets remaining on sale and New Orleans is in the midst of its best seven-game stretch of the season (6-1), which will likely make it an excellent environment for the Southwest Division game. Asked whether players are looking forward to tonight based on the circumstances and the opponent, Holiday said, “I’m sure. (But) I feel like right now it’s another game we have to win. We’ve been going really well, playing really well together and finishing out games. It’s another tough game. We know how good they are. We played them short-handed and we did alright. Now that we have our team (closer to full strength), I think we’ll be OK.” …

New Orleans’ recent stretch of excelling in crunch time and winning numerous close games has put the Pelicans in their best situation standings-wise for quite some time. New Orleans is now in sixth place in the Western Conference and only three games from fourth (current No. 4 Minnesota is 31-20). Holiday on what’s behind the team’s knack in January for fourth-quarter and overtime success: “Being comfortable with each other, especially in crunch-time situations when things get tight. Being comfortable in such an uncomfortable environment. Also being able to read the game and see who has it going to be able to take over in the last three, three and a half minutes.”

That’s often been Holiday himself, who is third in the NBA in January in clutch-time points, with 42. Perhaps not surprisingly given how this month has gone, fourth and fifth in the league this month are Cousins and Davis, at 32 and 28 points, respectively. Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie tops the NBA in January with 48 clutch-time points.