NEW ORLEANS — For the first two months of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans seemed to have little direction.
Their season started with hopes of postseason play that seemed to get dashed early when Zion Williamson went down with a knee injury that has kept him out the entire season. Early on, injuries piled up and rotations were a bit all over the place.
By their 20th game, the Pelicans hadn’t had a player appear in every game. In their 28th game, the Pelicans fell to 6-22 in an overtime heartbreaker to the Brooklyn Nets in what was a franchise-high 13th consecutive loss.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry and his coaching staff responded by changing some of the team’s defensive schemes. Since then? The Pelicans have won five of six games and won their fourth consecutive game on Sunday night with a come-from-behind 127-112 victory over the short-handed Houston Rockets.
In the past six games, New Orleans has the league’s third-best defensive rating. Some of that can be attributed to having center Derrick Favors back to full strength. The Pelicans also started dropping their bigs in pick-and-roll situations and have started forcing teams into tougher shots.
“We were just overly aggressive, I think, at the start, and it gave guards in this league who are really good players an opportunity to get downhill against our defense,” Gentry said on Sunday night.
“Everybody makes adjustments over the course of the season and it’s something that we felt like it may work better for us, and we also got Fave back too. Having him back and having him involved where he can play 25 or 28 minutes has been a world of a difference for us.”
Favors missed five games with back spasms and then missed another seven games after the death of his mother, Deandra, just before Thanksgiving. He returned to the lineup on Dec. 13 and had his minutes restriction dropped by the team on Dec. 20. Since the restriction was dropped, Favors is averaging 10.4 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, and he finished with 12 points and 16 rebounds against the Rockets.
While Favors has been a factor defensively for the Pelicans, a healthy Lonzo Ball has been critical for the pace of play Gentry prefers.
Ball has had some of his best overall games with New Orleans in the past five games, finishing with one of the best performances of his career against Houston. Ball finished with 27 points — just two off his career high — while hitting a career-best seven 3-pointers. He also chipped in 10 rebounds for just his second career 25-point, 10-rebound game and finished the night off with eight assists and two steals.
In the past five games, Ball is 16-of-34 from deep and ranks first on the team in made 3s and third in 3-point percentage (47.1) over that span.
“I’m just getting my legs back,” said Ball, who wasn’t cleared until September from an ankle injury that ended his 2018-19 season with the Lakers. “I’ve been out for pretty much nine months before I got here, so I’m just trying to do what I can do to help my team out, and the defense is picking up as well.”
Gentry, who said before the season he wanted to play at the fastest pace in the league, praised Ball for picking the pace up to where the team wanted it.
“He managed to push it and create open shots,” Gentry said. “I think he’s been playing well for us. He played exceptionally well tonight. He’s put in a lot of work on his 3-point shooting: before practice, after practice, he’s spent a lot of time doing that, and you saw the results tonight.”
Another key part to the Pelicans’ quasi turnaround has been Gentry shortening and tightening up his rotations. New Orleans has tried to settle in on solid eight- or nine-man rotations in the second half of games.
Gentry also has started to lean more on the Pelicans’ veterans — such as Favors and E’Twaun Moore — over rookies Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, opting to give the younger players fewer minutes.
In Moore’s case, it’s been paying off, but perhaps never more so than against the Rockets on Sunday, when he finished with a season-high 25 points and hit five 3-pointers. Moore, who has 12 coaches’ decision-DNPs on the season, played a big part in erasing a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter as the Pelicans outscored the Rockets 41-19 in the final frame.
“I’ve been through a lot harder,” Moore said. “That’s easy for me to keep focus and stay mentally strong, keep working on my game. One thing I say is ‘If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready’ so I just keep going forward. That’s all it is.”
The Pelicans have caught some breaks in the past two weeks or so. They played Minnesota without Karl-Anthony Towns on Dec. 18, caught Portland on Damian Lillard’s career-worst shooting night from deep on Dec. 23, and have wins over Indiana and Houston in the past two nights while each team was playing on a back-to-back.
Houston was without James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela on Sunday.
But none of that means much to Gentry.
“We don’t have a pretty good guy either, and we haven’t had him for the whole year,” Gentry joked about not having Williamson. “You’re going to always miss guys. You can’t judge anything on anything other than how you play and how you approach the game. We could use that for the last 30 games. But I think the guy we’re going to get back is pretty good.
“Not having Harden, Westbrook and Capela out there is a factor but we can’t worry about that. We have to control what we can control and that’s how we play with the five guys we have on the floor.”