At age 26, Norris Cole found himself an elder statesman as the New Orleans Pelicans entered the NBA playoffs against the Golden State Warriors.
Cole, who is in his fourth season, came to the Pelicans on Feb. 19 having been in three NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, winning championships his first two years in the league.
With New Orleans in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2011, teammates say that when Cole speaks in the locker room or in meetings, everybody perks up.
“I was blessed to go to a team like Miami, to learn from some of the best professionals in the game,” Cole said. “I just took advantage of it. I didn’t take it for granted.
“Now, being able to come here as the most experienced guy as far as the postseason, I’m just ready for that opportunity.”
That has been evident on the court as well. He’s averaged 9.5 points and 3.5 assists against the Warriors. However, with point guards Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday battling leg ailments, his importance has gone beyond that. Cole has been a steadying influence.
“The moments don’t bother him as much,” coach Monty Williams said. “His mentality is a bit different. He has 60-plus games of playoff experience. Those are 60 situations our main guys don’t have. So, we value that.
“He’s given us a different pace, and his defense has been outstanding. He just gets it.”
Cole was reassuring as the Pelicans cut a 25-point deficit to four and gave themselves a chance to win Game 1 in Oakland.
“He told us he’d been in that situation with Miami where they actually came back and won the game,” said third-year power forward Anthony Davis, in the playoffs for the first time, “and that kind of got us going.”
Cole, who before one recent game wore a T-shirt that read “Basketball IS My Girlfriend,” can be terse when teammates don’t get it. Cole and small forward Quincy Pondexter, who also had a lot of playoff experience, got into a verbal spat on the court concerning an assignment, Pondexter said.
“We laughed later, but we want the same thing,” Pondexter said.
Said Cole: “Speaking my mind has always been pretty easy. You want to be politically correct, but sometimes you just have to keep it 100 percent real.”
Cole’s never-say-die attitude is part of his makeup, he said. However, a big transformation came during his second NBA season, 2013, when the Heat won its second consecutive championship. Cole averaged 6.1 points on 48.0 percent shooting, playing a key role off the bench.
“It gave me a boost on how I can impact the game and help a team win,” he said. “It was part of the growth process of being on a championship-caliber team. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
After coming to the Pelicans, Cole clicked immediately with his new teammates. More important, he told them what he liked about them — their hunger, athleticism, youth and Williams’ commitment to defense.
Davis said Cole made the Pelicans feel he believed in them. That, forward Dante Cunningham said, made them feel they could get to where they wanted to go.
“He was the final piece of what we needed to make this team whole, from the last man to the first man,” Cunningham said. “Coming from him, he’s seen a lot, and it made a big difference to hear that.”
Cole came at a critical time, with Holiday having had a setback and concerns about Evans wearing down and the team missing its goal of a winning season. The Pelicans went 17-11 after Cole arrived to make the playoffs. He had a message going into it. Although six Pelicans had experienced the postseason, none had gone deep into the playoffs.
“Fight, for one,” he said. “You have to fight and scrap for everything, compete at the highest level. Prepare your body. Prepare your mind for the focus of what it takes.
“It’s all about detail at this point of the season. It’s the details that can determine a series.”
Box out. Set a hard screen. Stay mentally alert and focused for 48 minutes. Stay physical, tough. Cole came into the NBA with a team that had guard Dwyane Wade, who had been a Finals MVP, and had signed multiple-times league MVP LeBron James and All-Star forward Chris Bosh. He learned to lead, he said, by being a good follower.
With the Pelicans, things are different. The team patiently has been built by General Manager Dell Demps and Williams.
“Here you can tell the groundwork is definitely being laid,” Cole said. “You have a young superstar in AD. You have good supporting skill players.
“It’s great to be part of the foundation of something, to help create good habits. That’s what champions are made of.”