postgame: Pelicans 111, Hawks 105 (3/21/14)

by Jim Eichenhofer

New Orleans' Tyreke Evans (left) and Atlanta's DeMarre Carroll chase a loose ball during Friday's game

ATLANTA – Two New Orleans Pelicans players who made no impact during Wednesday’s loss to Toronto came up huge in the clutch during Friday’s road win over the Hawks. One was expected. The other came as a fairly major surprise.

In his return to the court after sitting out Wednesday with an upper respiratory infection, Anthony Davis turned in another dominating individual performance, scoring 30-plus points for the fourth time in his last five appearances. The first-time All-Star finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds.

Meanwhile, reserve Luke Babbitt – who did not play Wednesday and didn’t enter Friday until the final seconds of the third quarter – managed to score 11 game-changing points in only 12 minutes. Babbitt drilled three three-pointers, pivotal to turning the momentum.

The Pelicans trailed 71-69 entering the fourth quarter, but racked up 42 points in the final period and connected on numerous key free throws in the final minutes to secure the win.

“It was awesome,” Davis said of Babbitt, the 12th and final Pelican to enter the game. “For him to come out and score 11 big points, hit some big threes and make some big plays – especially when he hasn’t been playing for a while, to always be ready – that was huge for us, to give us that spark.”

“Props to him for coming in the game cold and being able to knock down a shot,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “We’re going to need that down the stretch (of the season).”

“I just tried to stay ready and continued to work hard,” Babbitt said of his approach during recent inactivity. “I haven’t played as much as I would’ve liked these last couple weeks. (If) I just continue to fight, play hard, practice well and do the little things, I know things will turn around.”

After a seesaw game at Philips Arena, Babbitt checked in with New Orleans (28-40) trailing 69-64 with 37 seconds to go in the third quarter. Two possessions later, he drained a three-pointer that made it 71-69 going into the final 12 minutes. He also opened the fourth quarter with a successful trey, for a personal 6-0 run that put the Pelicans in front permanently over Atlanta (31-36). The left-hander tacked on a driving layup and another three-ball to stretch the advantage to 93-85 with 3:32 remaining. The Pelicans iced the victory by stepping to the line and hitting their free throws, going 16-for-17 in the fourth quarter.

Williams called the insertion of Babbitt a “wrinkle in the game plan,” a move that forced Atlanta’s front-court defenders to have to account for a three-point shooter in Babbitt. With driving lanes opening up for Babbitt’s teammates, Austin Rivers scored seven of his 10 points in the fourth. Davis registered his seventh straight game of 28-plus points by notching 13 in the decisive period. Davis again delivered an All-Star performance, continuing to play efficiently on offense by shooting 11-for-19 from the field and 12-for-15 from the foul line. He’s scored 36, 40 and 34 points in his past three appearances, which are the three highest-scoring games of his two-year NBA career.

The Pelicans ended the Hawks’ five-game winning streak despite losing another key contributor to injury. After playing eight minutes in the first half, Eric Gordon did not return to the court after intermission, sidelined by tendinitis in his left knee. New Orleans is hopeful its starting shooting guard will be able to play vs. two-time defending NBA champion Miami in less than 24 hours at the Smoothie King Center.

“He said his tendinitis flared up really badly,” Williams said. “We hope we get him tomorrow against Miami. We’re praying it’s just a one-day thing, that he can get some treatment tonight and be ready tomorrow. He tried to go at halftime and couldn’t do it.”

As a result, for a countless time this season, the Pelicans were forced to improvise and alter their rotation. Anthony Morrow started the second half at two-guard in Gordon’s place and 10 Pelicans logged at least 10 minutes of playing time.

“I can’t reiterate enough how proud I am that our team continues to battle and play hard every single night,” Williams said of the team’s season-long injury misfortune. “When you have a lot of guys out, it’s important that everyone steps up.”

After losing several recent close games – but also winning twice in overtime this month – the Pelicans were pleased to outplay their opponent in the fourth quarter. Amid constant personnel changes, New Orleans has rarely been able to gain cohesiveness or develop familiarity with specific units of players.

“We’re a young team. We’re trying to put pieces together with guys who haven’t played together a whole lot,” Babbitt said. “We’re playing against teams that are experienced playing together and have continuity. It’s difficult when you’re a young team to close out games – that’s probably the most difficult thing in the NBA to do.”