OKLAHOMA CITY — Down 81-78 early in the fourth quarter, New Orleans forward Ryan Anderson found himself wide open on the wing for what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer. It skipped across the front of the rim, and within minutes, the deeper, healthier Oklahoma City Thunder had a double digit advantage en route to a 110-103 victory at Chesapeake Arena on Wednesday night.
With All-star forward Anthony Davis sidelined with an injured left shoulder, Anderson stepped up with a 30-point, seven-rebound showing on 13-of-25 shooting. He keyed one final push for the Pelicans, hitting a 3-pointer and then finding Luke Babbitt for another one to make it 97-94 Oklahoma City and force a Thunder timeout with 3:24 remaining. But Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook converted a traditional three-point play on the ensuing possession, then rebounded a Pelicans miss and went coast-to-coast for a layup to stretch the lead to eight.
“We gave ourselves a great opportunity, but a great player (Westbrook) closed out the game,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “He does that against a lot of teams.”
Westbrook scored a game-high 43 points to go with nine rebounds and eight assists. Enes Kanter had 24 points and 14 rebounds for the Thunder, who improved to 7-5.
But it wasn’t easy. The Pelicans led by as many as nine in the first half, holding Oklahoma City to 6-of-22 shooting in the first quarter to take a 27-21 lead after the opening quarter. Oklahoma City outscored New Orleans 32-18 in the second to lead by eight at halftime. But three times in the second half, the Pelicans came within a field goal. However, they were never able to take the lead in the second half and fell to 1-11.
“We gave everything we had,” Anderson said. “We answered their runs. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we keep playing like this we’ll start seeing some wins. I guess you could call this a moral victory.”
Ish Smith and Eric Gordon each had 18 points for New Orleans. Alexis Ajinca had 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Dante Cunningham topped the bench with nine points before fouling out.
“We moved the ball well, we rebounded well. What more can you ask for, especially when you have this many guys out,” Anderson said, referring to the seven injured Pelicans who couldn’t play.
Gentry credited Smith, who had a team-high six assists, with the improved ball movement.
“We had gotten stagnant the last few games, and Ish did a great job coming in and moving the basketball,” Gentry said. “A lot of our shots at the end of the game came up short, which is what happens when guys are playing more minutes than they should be playing.”
The Pelicans outshot the Thunder from the field, 45.3 percent to 44.7 percent. The big difference came at the free-throw line, where Oklahoma City took 40 shots (making 27), compared to New Orleans’ nine attempts (making all nine). Injured center Kendrick Perkins drew a technical in the first half for arguing with officials, and Anderson picked up what he called a “frustration” flagrant foul in the second quarter. Anderson didn’t shoot a free throw all night.
“I don’t want to get fined,” Anderson said when asked about the officiating. “Let’s just say they are a team that gets away with a lot of little stuff.”
Gentry has been a coach since 1977, so when the Pelicans’ boss says he’s never seen anything like the rash of injuries his team is currently facing, it’s not a good sign.
On Wednesday, New Orleans had nearly as many injured players (seven) as healthy ones (nine).
“It is what it is,” Gentry said. “You just have to push forward.”
Davis suffered a left shoulder injury during Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets. He tested it out during pregame warmups but was unable to go.
“It’s just discomfort,” Gentry said. “He’s having a tough time raising his arm to where he can be as effective as he needs to me.”
Center Omer Asik is still dealing with a stomach illness, and Perkins is out with a pectoral injury. The backcourt is also short-handed. Quincy Pondexter’s left knee is hurt, while Tyreke Evans tweaked his right knee. Norris Cole sprained his left ankle, and Jrue Holiday hurt his lower right leg.
“You just have to keep the faith and stay focused on the long term. The NBA season is really long,” Gentry said. “When we get healthy, I think we’ll have a good basketball team. I have no doubt about that.”
The Thunder honored Perkins during a timeout, and the injured center received a standing ovation from the fans he played for from 2011 through 2015. Although Perkins’ on-court production has been steadily declining for years, he has always been a locker-room favorite.
“When we were doing our research in the offseason, every single player we talked to said he was the best teammate they’ve ever had,” Gentry said. “I’m not exaggerating. It was every single player we talked to. He’s been a great mentor to guys like AD and Omer. With Perk, It’s kind of like having another coach on the floor. I’ll have him around here as long as I’m the coach of this team and as long as he wants to be here.”
There are other connections between the Thunder and the Pelicans. Monty Williams, who was New Orleans’ head coach from 2010 to 2015, is now a Thunder assistant. Anthony Morrow, who is currently starting for the Thunder in place of the injured Kevin Durant, played for the Pelicans in 2013-2014.
In college, Holiday took over the reins as UCLA’s starting point guard from Westbrook in 2008 after Westbrook left for the NBA. Thunder guard D.J. Augustin won two state championships at Brother Martin before relocating to Texas after Hurricane Katrina.
Things won’t get easier for the Pelicans, who return to New Orleans for a quick two-game homestand before embarking on a three-game road trip.
On Friday, the Pelicans host San Antonio at 7 p.m. Phoenix comes to town Sunday for a 5 p.m. contest.