He’s a blur and he can be disruptive. He can change the game in the blink of an eye.
And nobody knows Ish Smith’s strengths better than the Pelicans.
So as New Orleans stormed out to a fast start — then held on against a late rally — to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 121-114 Friday night at the Smoothie King Center, much of their defensive focus was on their former teammate.
Smith finished with 12 points and six assists in the loss, well below the 15.3 points and 7.9 assists per game he came in averaging for Philadelphia since the Pelicans traded him for two second-round draft picks in December.
“We know when he has the ball in his hands, he’s a matchup nightmare for anybody,” said forward Anthony Davis, who scored a game-high 34 points. “So we didn’t want to leave our guards on islands. We just tried to get the ball out of his hands to make somebody else beat us, and I think we did a solid job of that tonight.”
Smith was a defensive target, but the Pelicans weren’t picky early. They smothered the Sixers defensively in the first half and flew around the court on offense in storming to a 22-point first-half lead.
“Good gracious, I think they kind of beat us up in transition,” Smith said
Davis scored 18 points in the first quarter to help stake the Pelicans to a 37-26 lead after one, and they built on that margin in the second. New Orleans scored on a string of eight straight possessions at one point to take its largest lead of the half — 69-47 on a Dante Cunningham dunk — with 1:49 to play in the second quarter.
New Orleans had 23 first-half fast break points.
“I thought we started the game the right way, and really I thought we did it defensively,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I thought we were really good, and then we did a great job of moving the basketball. The first half was one of the best halves we’ve played this year.”
But the 76ers rallied in the second half, and that started, Gentry said, with the Pelicans’ shaky finish to the first.
Philadelphia scored four points in less than a second — a Smith free throw, then a Nik Stauskas 3-pointer after a Davis turnover on the ensuing inbound pass — to pull within 71-55 at halftime.
“Probably gave them a little momentum,” Davis said.
And the Sixers seized on it.
Philadelphia scored the first six points of the third quarter to cut what had been a 22-point Pelicans lead in the second quarter to 71-61, and they trimmed it to eight at the 9:24 mark of the third on a Jahlil Okafor hook shot.
New Orleans led 89-77 with 3:14 to play in the third, but Philadelphia closed the quarter on a 13-3 run, and Isaiah Canaan’s 3-pointer with less than a second to play cut the Pelicans’ lead to 92-90 entering the fourth.
A Canaan 3-pointer with 11:08 to play in the fourth cut New Orleans’ lead to 94-93, but the Pelicans answered with seven straight points and went ahead 101-93 on Anderson’s 3-pointer at the 9:57 mark.
Philadelphia never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
Ryan Anderson added 26 points and Jrue Holiday 24 points and 12 assists.
Nerlens Noel had 24 points and nine rebounds for Philadelphia. But the Pelicans managed to contain Smith, who was their primary defensive focus.
Smith visited the Pelicans’ locker room after the game and caught up with his former teammates, who gave him some postgame grief. During the game, he had their defensive respect.
“With Ish, you have to keep him boxed in as much as you can, and that’s what we treid to do,” Gentry said. “You get him into open space and he’s a very good player. Even as much as we tried to box him in, you could see he had plays that he spit us. The dribble penetration and making plays for other people is what he does best.”
Bryce Dejean-Jones began his NBA career with the Pelicans’ Summer League team, and he wanted to continue with New Orleans.
The rookie free agent got the chance on Friday, signing a mutli-year deal with the club after back-to-back 10-day contracts. Dejean-Jones — who had been playing in the NBA Development League prior to signing with the Pelicans after Eric Gordon’s finger injury — missed last week’s game in Oklahoma City while he was between contracts.
Dejean-Jones, who left Friday’s game with a wrist injury in the third quarter but should be “fine,” Gentry said, focused on basketball over the All-Star break as his agent negotiated with the Pelicans and other teams.
“My preference was to come back here,” Dejean-Jones said. “This is where I’m most comfortable. I’ve been here throughout the whole summer. It’s where I pretty much started my professional career.”