JJ Redick shoots a floater at Portland

Unselfish passing, balanced scoring making Pelicans a top-tier offensive team

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

PORTLAND – Josh Hart quickly dished a pass to Jrue Holiday in the left corner Friday, but in the blink of an eye, the ball immediately returned to Hart’s hands at the left wing, setting him up for a wide-open three-pointer. Swish.

Sequences like that have become commonplace for New Orleans in recent weeks, resulting in the Pelicans performing at an elite level offensively, leading the NBA in assists per game (28.7) since Christmas. Their nightly goal is to reach 30 assists, but lately that’s almost been too easy for the team from the Big Easy to achieve. In four of the last five games, New Orleans has cleared that plateau, including a whopping 40 and 36 dimes vs. Portland in a pair of February wins. Facing Chicago on Feb. 6, the Pelicans handed out 38 assists. Add it up, and three of the club’s five best assist games of 2019-20 have occurred in the past 2.5 weeks.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are unselfish and like to make plays like that,” Holiday said of New Orleans pinballing the rock around Moda Center in an important 128-115 win. “When you have character like that, it’s easy to see the ball passed like eight times in one possession and get a good shot. We feed off that. It’s a lot of good energy.”

Despite much of the Pelicans’ roster coming together for the first time in October training camp, they’re increasingly looking like a team that has spent significant minutes together. New Orleans was already one of the NBA’s best three-point shooting teams, but the recent uptick in ball movement has pushed the Pelicans to No. 1 in the league in percentage since Christmas (39.1). The Pelicans went eight days between games bridging the All-Star break, but did not show any rust in Portland, piling up 73 first-half points.

“Our chemistry is getting better and better. It shows on the court,” said forward Nicolo Melli, who’s benefited often from his teammates finding him beyond the arc. “It could’ve been a risk (of losing momentum) because we were playing good before the All-Star break, but I think we proved that we can keep rolling.”

Although New Orleans players enjoyed the time off, they seemed to relish the opportunity to get back on the court together for a three-game West Coast road trip. That enthusiasm showed up often in Friday’s victory, as six Pelicans reached double digits in scoring.

“It’s fun,” Holiday said of the collective effort. “Everyone gets a chance to touch (the ball), everyone gets a chance to score. It’s a fun way to play.”

“We’re moving the ball, turning down good shots for great shots,” Hart said, using one of the popular sayings of teams that rely on superior ball movement. “When you play like that, you have confidence. You know the ball’s going to come to you. You know if you miss, you’re not standing in the corner thinking, ‘When am I going to touch the ball (again)?’ When you’re in a rhythm like that, in the flow of the game, shots tend to fall when you’re involved.”

“Pace is helping us, space is helping us and guys are just playing unselfishly,” point guard Lonzo Ball said. “We have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket, but it’s a lot easier when we move the ball, rather than (rely on isolation, one-on-one offense). I think we figured that out.”

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