It was starting to look like another listless performance for the New Orleans Pelicans bench, a bunch of role players now in bigger roles seeing more playing time after injuries to three key players. The Pelicans trailed by 11 points to the Toronto Raptors on Monday night and already had given up six offensive rebounds.
But then Luke Babbitt entered in the second quarter, and all of that changed. Making all three of his shots, including both 3-point attempts, the Pelicans (29-27) began competing, even after they had trailed by 12 at halftime.
Babbitt continued his torrid shooting, going 7-of-9 from the field, including 4-of-5 on 3s, in scoring a season-high 18 points and also grabbing a career high-tying eight rebounds. Known for his stoic demeanor, Babbitt embodied the Pelicans’ strong will in coming back to beat the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference after trailing by as many as 18.
“Luke is the same guy every day, no matter what,” coach Monty Williams said Tuesday as his team prepared for Wednesday’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets (23-31). “He’s shooting the ball better, making better decisions off the dribble, but he’s just consistent with his work and his mindset. Whether he’s starting, not playing or playing off the bench, he’s the same guy.”
Ever since sharp-shooting power forward Ryan Anderson was injured against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 7, Babbitt has stepped up. He scored 15 points in each of the next two games, against Utah and Indiana at the Smoothie King Center, although the Pelicans lost both.
But in the five games after the Bulls matchup, Babbitt has shot 16-of-29 (55.2 percent), including 10-of-17 (58.8) on 3s in averaging 12.2 points. His season average had been 3.9 points.
The increase is the result of consistent work. Every day, Babbitt shoots 3s after practice, and Williams said he does it before practice, too.
“That’s something I have to do well,” Babbitt said. “That’s the main thing I’m out there (in games) for, so you want to do that well, first and foremost, and other things will come with it.”
Babbitt got open shots against Toronto, which he credited to penetration in the lane by the team’s guards. He has worked on getting his shot off quicker, which cuts down on defenders’ closing time, and also shooting the ball with more loft, which gives him more margin for error regarding the shot going in.
But with defenders running at him given his recent hot shooting, he has been driving to the basket more, and Monday he showed an ability to make plays, passing to teammates for two assists.
“That’s something I’ve been focusing on the last couple of weeks,” he said. “With guys being out, the opportunity is there to make a few more plays. I think I can do that, especially at (power forward). Off the dribble, I think I might be quicker than a lot of (opposing power forwards).”
Part of Babbitt’s recent success also is that he’s playing his natural position — stretch (or 3-point-shooting) power forward. He was signed in January 2014 to replace Anderson after his season-ending neck injury. Babbitt showed enough for the Pelicans to retain him this season and give him a shot at small forward, but he is not as effective there against quicker, more athletic players.
He will go against one such player against the Nets. With Babbitt coming off the bench, he likely will be matched against Brooklyn’s recently acquired power forward, Thaddeus Young, who was born in New Orleans.
Young, at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, is a small but quick and long power forward. While with Philadelphia during the 2012-13 season, he played a key role in the 76ers’ win in New Orleans with his defense against Anderson, chasing him off the 3-point line and providing a blueprint for other teams on how to guard him.
NOTE: With a day in between games, the Pelicans had a light practice Tuesday. That was fine with point guard Tyreke Evans, whom Williams said was “a little under the weather.” Evans briefly left Monday night’s game, saying he couldn’t breathe, Williams said. “He felt better today,” Williams said. “He should feel better (Wednesday).”