That the New Orleans Pelicans scored 60 points in the lane against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night was an interesting development.
For next up on the schedule are the Minnesota Timberwolves (2-5), whose victories against New Orleans the previous two seasons often were marked by their success scoring near the basket, with rugged center Nikola Pekovic the main culprit.
Things are different now. Coach Rick Adelman, whose offense featured backdoor cuts, has retired, and power forward Kevin Love, who hurt New Orleans inside and outside, was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And, the Pelicans (4-3) now have center Omer Asik, a 7-foot, 255-pound presence in the lane. His battle against Pekovic (6-11, 285) figures to be one of the key storylines Friday night at the Smoothie King Center.
“They’re both two of the strongest guys in the league, for sure,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Pekovic is more offensive than Omer by far. But I would say Omer defensively is on a different level than Pekovic.
“But both are factors for their teams, and their mentality is of the rough, tough throwback-type centers that we had back in the day.”
Asik smiled when asked about his battles against Pekovic, a fifth-year veteran from Montenegro who is averaging 15.0 points and 8.5 rebounds this season, playing 30.1 minutes per game.
“It’s tough to guard him,” Asik said. “You just try to be physical and deny him the ball. You have to get position against him and try to force bad shots.
“I think he’s really underrated. He’s been playing great throughout his career.”
Asik had just seven points against the Lakers but blocked two shots and had a game-high 13 rebounds. He is averaging 9.1 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.43 blocks. He has given the Pelicans the defensive presence they needed and picked up the offense and defenses quickly, which helped make him a great fit, Williams said.
“When he and (power forward Anthony Davis) are on the floor, you feel like you’ve got a chance to stop anybody,” Williams said. “If (opponents) miss, you’re going to get the board.
“The good thing about Omer is he can play with AD and Ryan (Anderson), and that gives you a number of options with your bigs.”
Under coach Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves still attack the lane, but in a different way than Adleman’s Princeton-style offense. Minnesota now uses more screen-and-roll.
“They have some athletes who can get in the paint,” Williams said. “They don’t have (injured point guard Ricky) Rubio, but Thaddeus (Young) plays in the paint. (Guard) Shabbazz Muhammad has gotten a lot better — and Pekovic, his duck-ins on the weak side have hurt every team in the NBA.”
That’s where Davis comes in. Leading the league in rebounds (12.9) and blocks (4.43), national analysts have professed amazement at how quickly he seemingly comes out of nowhere to blocks shots. He had six against the Lakers, along with 25 points and 12 rebounds. He is the only player in the league who has had three games of at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.
That the Timberwolves have gotten more athletic, however, is no surprise. Team officials began with that goal after the 2012 season. Last season, Minnesota acquired Muhammad from Utah and shooting guard Kevin Martin from Oklahoma City and signed free-agent guard/forward Corey Brewer.
Love’s trade demands then allowed the T’Wolves to acquire guard Andrew Wiggins, a rookie from Kansas who was June’s top overall draft pick and is one of the more athletic players in the league. That trade also brought Anthony Bennett, last year’s No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland, who is out injured.
The Timberwolves not only get into the lane through the front door now as opposed to the back door, they also run up and down the floor.
It’s early yet, but Davis is on track to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 20 points on 54 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 2.0 steals in the same season. ... Rubio, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract during training camp, sprained his left ankle during the second quarter at Orlando on Nov. 7. He was not with the team for its game against Houston on Wednesday in Mexico City. ... Coming off a game against the statistically the worst defensive team in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage in the Lakers, the Pelicans now face the second-worst in Minnesota. ... After this game, the Pelicans go on a four-game Western road trip at Portland, Sacramento, Denver and Utah over a six-day period.