The New Orleans Pelicans headed to San Antonio on Friday feeling good about two of their staples of winning basketball: playing defense and sharing the ball.
But on Saturday night, they face the defending champion Spurs. New Orleans is 1-11 against San Antonio in the past three seasons, including a 4-0 sweep last year.
“I don’t think I’ve ever won there,” said point guard Jrue Holiday, who’s entering his sixth pro season, including four with the Philadelphia 76ers.
To break this San Antonio slump, the Pelicans may need to step up in another area: the bench. After last season, when it also was a concern, it remained a question mark after the losses of center/power forward Jason Smith and guards Anthony Morrow and Brian Roberts.
The recent play of forward Ryan Anderson and guard Austin Rivers has been a step toward bench success. Anderson bounced back from a 2-of-14 shooting effort Monday in a 93-81 loss at Memphis with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting in Tuesday’s 100-91 win against Charlotte. Rivers had his best game of the season against the Hornets, posting 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, five rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot and no turnovers in 32 minutes, 18 seconds.
“Austin is really playing well now,” Anderson said. “He’s being aggressive and attacking the basket. He’s defending well, passing the ball.”
More important, the two appear to have chemistry. Rivers has filled former reserve Tyreke Evans’ role of aggressively driving to the basket and finding open teammates — most notably Anderson.
“(Anderson and I) were just talking about that,” Rivers said after Friday’s practice. “We’re playing for each other. We were talking about other things we can do as far as the pick-and-roll or, when he doesn’t have a shot, handing it off to me coming around. We’re looking for each other.”
Like its starting five, San Antonio’s bench is a formidable unit. The Spurs were without starter Tiago Splitter (calf) during Thursday’s loss to Houston, which changed the rotation. But when healthy, San Antonio boasts a bench led by guard/small forward Manu Ginobili, perhaps the best sixth man in the league, and forwards Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner. Backup point guard Patty Mills (shoulder surgery) is out and shooting guard Marco Belinelli has been ailing, but it’s a bench that passes and shoots well and plays gritty defense.
“Right now, they’re not whole, but they’re still really good,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “They’re deep and experienced, and they’re just a classic bench team. They know their roles, they do it the same way every single game and it’s one of a few teams in the league where you have to prepare for the bench. Not a lot of teams are like that.”
Pelicans reserves are averaging just 24 points, and New Orleans has been outscored by the other team’s bench in three of its four games. Only the Orlando Magic bench, in the Pelicans’ season-opening 101-84 win, failed to outscore the New Orleans reserves.
Williams said it’s still early, but he’s contemplating getting more players involved. He did so in the loss at Memphis, when 7-foot-2 center Alexis Ajinca played 10 minutes, 14 seconds. Ajinca has shown he can score, getting five points on 2-of-3 shooting. He also played in the win against Charlotte on Tuesday but committed seven fouls in the two games, including three in five minutes against the Hornets.
“Alexis has to better anticipate what the opponent is doing instead of reacting to it,” Williams said.
Four games into the season, no backup small forward has stepped up to seize a spot in the rotation. John Salmons, Luke Babbitt and Darius Miller have combined to shoot 0-of-7.
And guard Jimmer Fredette, who shot well in the preseason, is 0-of-6 — including 0-of-3 on 3-point attempts — in 35:33 spanning three games.