Pelicans shootaround update presented by HUB International: Nikola Mirotic won’t play in Oklahoma City, but New Orleans looks forward to having him Saturday

by Jim Eichenhofer

OKLAHOMA CITY – Help is on the way, in the form of newly-acquired forward Nikola Mirotic, but that trade acquisition won’t be available to the New Orleans Pelicans until Saturday’s back-to-back game at Minnesota. In the meantime, New Orleans (27-23) will have to make do Friday while only expecting to have 10 players available, facing one of the NBA’s hottest teams, Oklahoma City (30-22 and recent owners of an eight-game winning streak).

When asked at morning shootaround how the short-handed predicament affects the Pelicans’ approach to a Western Conference matchup vs. the Thunder, point guard Rajon Rondo said, “It doesn’t. We’re still graded on wins and losses. It’s important for everyone to step up tonight and play to win.”

“We’ve just got to go out there and play,” Pelicans five-time All-Star forward Anthony Davis said. “We can’t worry about that. We still have a job to do.” …

Other notes from shootaround at Chesapeake Energy Arena:

A teammate of Mirotic’s in Chicago last season, Rondo knows the smooth-shooting forward very well, having become a close friend. He’s enthusiastic about adding the 6-foot-10, 220-pounder to the rotation.

“He’s going to be a great addition to our team,” Rondo said. “He was a great teammate of mine last year. Great guy in the locker room. He’s going to play to win.”

Mirotic is experiencing a breakout season in 2017-18, posting career highs across the board, including in scoring average (16.8), field-goal percentage (47.4) and three-point percentage (42.9). Rondo described why Mirotic may have found his stride in his fourth NBA season by noting, “You’re only as good as your coach believes in you. This year he’s taken the next step, doing a lot of intangibles on the court, rebounding the ball well, and of course shooting the basketball extremely well. I’m happy for Niko as a friend, and definitely happy to become a teammate again with him this year. I look forward to him bringing another stretch-four to our lineup, making things easier for me and Anthony and the rest of the team.”

“It takes a little while to settle in and really kind of find your niche, who you are and what you can do in this league,” Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “With (Mirotic), we think he’s on his way to doing that now. He’s been really good shooting the basketball, at a high percentage from three. I think he could be even better at that. Obviously if you’re playing with (Davis), he’s going to open up some shots for you, because he gets double-teamed and triple-teamed sometimes. And (Mirotic) just gives us some size.” …

Davis on Mirotic: “He can score the ball. He can defend. He’s going to help us space the floor, because he can really shoot it. I’m excited to have him here.” …

New Orleans is 0-2 since DeMarcus Cousins sustained a season-ending left Achilles injury seven days ago, but the Pelicans were already aggressively looking at ways to improve their roster before that unfortunate event. With New Orleans currently in seventh place in the Western Conference, but just two games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers (25-25), there’s very little cushion in the standings.

Davis on the Pelicans being proactive with the roster: “When you lose a guy like DeMarcus, it’s tough on our team. But we have to keep going. I think the organization went out right away to do something about it, knowing the position we are in, sitting at No. 7 now. We want to make sure we don’t drop, and that we keep progressing as a team.”

“It’s really difficult when you lose a guy that’s averaging 25 and 13,” Gentry said of it being impossible to duplicate Cousins’ scoring and rebounding production. “It’s not so much (just) that average, it’s what he brought – the physicality, the double-teams he commands, he’s an excellent passer, averaging over five assists a game, and there aren’t many centers who can do that. You lose all of that and I think what you have to do is try to piece-by-piece try to replace that. You’re not going to get one guy who’s going to get 25 and 12. Our guards have to rebound a little better, everybody has to try to up their game a little bit, we’ve got to try to play a little faster, and spacing and running where we’re spreading the floor and playing out of those situations. It takes a little while to adjust.” …

Pelicans players and coaches are putting transition defense near the top of the list of keys while facing Oklahoma City and attack-minded Russell Westbrook tonight.

“He’s a one-man fast break anyway, so you have to get back,” Gentry said of the reining league MVP. “And it can’t just be one (defender). He has to see multiple eyes. One guy back is like no one back for him. He’s a really unique player in this league, from the standpoint of being your leading rebounder, leading assist guy and also leading scorer.”

“You’ve got to get back and load to the ball,” Rondo said of facing OKC. “They’re going to make runs and spectacular plays. They have a lot of great players. We have to continue to push it right back at them, get to the free-throw line and see how it goes.”