“We always approach the each game the same way. The NBA is full of great players. They just added two more guys.” — Pelicans coach Monty Williams on whether the presence of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant presented more a challenge for his team than it would have if the Oklahoma City stars were still out with injuries.
After stumbling through three straight defeats since Eric Gordon was lost to a torn labrum, the Pels approached Tuesday’s game against the Thunder like it was a challenge to their manhood, prevailing 112-104 to even their record at 8-8.
“This was good for us, especially coming off three losses,” said forward Anthony Davis who provided a typical — 25 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, six steals — AD for MVP effort. “We just have to remind ourselves that we have the skills to win.”
Or maybe, in some cases, their livelihoods.
After forwards Darius Miller and Patrick Young were waived Sunday, reportedly freeing up a roster spot for as-yet unsigned free agent Dante Cunningham, it fell to Luke Babbitt to start for the first time this season.
His assignment — providing spacing on offense but also contributing the primary defense on Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, who missed the season’s first 17 games with a broken toe
Kind of do it or don’t come back alive. Or at least don’t be surprised to see your locker cleaned out Wednesday morning.
It wasn’t graceful — Babbitt was whistled for four fouls in the first half alone.
But it was enough to help limit to Durant to 12 points in the first 24 minutes, less than half of his league-leading 32.0-point scoring average of a year ago.
“Maybe a couple of those fouls were a little too aggressive,” Babbitt said. “But I didn’t want to give him anything easy.”
Babbitt’s defensive efforts helped the Pelicans maintain a narrow lead during most of the first two quarters — one they expanded to 69-52 at halftime with a rousing 12-0 run over the final two minutes that made the Smoothie King Center seem like it was more than half-filled for a game matching two of the league’s superstars.
But maybe it was precisely the kind of game that will fill more of those empty seats.
Certainly it was one the Pelicans needed more than any other in this young season.
While Davis, this week’s Sports Illustrated cover subject, has been posting MVP numbers of his own — 24.9 points (third in the league), 11.3 rebounds (sixth), 3.0 blocked shots (first) and 2.1 steals (fifth) per-game and an unworldly PER, his teammates had been struggling on the offensive end, getting poor ball movement which led to poor shooting percentages.
Against Washington on Saturday, they took 81 shots but made only 37 percent of them with a season-low 12 assists a major factor.
But Tuesday, everybody seemed to be looking for the open man — and usually finding them.
The Pels had 23 aided baskets Tuesday, a number only diminished by 20 second-chance points, double the Thunder’s.
If the Pelicans are going to be a playoff contender — they’re 11th in the super-competitive Western Conference and that with the sure-to-improve Thunder (5-13) now tied for 12th — these are the kind of games they are going to have to win — at home against the other good teams from the conference, of which there are many.
It certainly was a good way to start December, a month in which the Pels play a season-high 18 games, with a West Coast road trip to Golden State followed by a back-to-back against the two Los Angeles teams just ahead.
Before Tuesday, the Pels had lost 10 of their last 11 against OKC, the lone victory coming in the final week of last season when the Thunder rested most of its starters before the playoffs.
Tuesday, they were at full strength. Durant finished with 27 points and Westbrook 21. But that wasn’t enough.
Durant got 16 of his points in the second-half when Babbitt was playing only a cameo role (1:56).
So, was it a job-saving performance? Too early to say.
A season-defining victory? Way too early for that one, too.
But on this night, the Pels showed that for the first time in four seasons, we should expect meaningful games in March and April.