DENVER — In this stretch of New Orleans Pelicans wins without Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and, of course, Anthony Davis, every game has featured a different hero, from Tyreke Evans to the resurgent Eric Gordon to the out-of-nowhere Luke Babbitt.
There was no single hero Sunday night, but there was the unlikely dynamic duo of Alexis Ajinca and Dante Cunningham.
While the Pelicans had terrific balance, the play of Ajinca and Cunningham carried the Pelicans to a 99-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the Pepsi Center for their season-best fifth straight win.
Neither player led the team in any major statistical category, but both provided a steadying presence.
For Cunningham, it was his consistency from the mid-range and toughness — he drew a key charge on Randy Foye late in the game — that was key. While mid-range shots are largely thought to be inefficient, when a player like Cunningham is hitting them consistently, the Pelicans will live with the results.
And they have to be pleased that they kept pace with the Oklahoma City Thunder (who won 108-101 at the Los Angeles Lakers) in the chase for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth.
“Dante was good all night long, offensively and rebounding the ball,” coach Monty Williams said. “He gave us some big-time juice tonight.”
Ajinca was the unlikely hero early in the fourth quarter.
With 28 seconds left in the third, the Pelicans were ahead 65-60. Those 28 seconds later, after a Will Barton layup and Danilo Gallinari’s 52-foot heave, the score was tied.
For some teams, that rapid turn of events, capped by such an improbable shot, can destroy morale and turn the tide.
The Pelicans, to their credit, didn’t hang their heads.
Once the fourth began, they immediately went inside to Ajinca, who calmly scored to put the Pelicans back up again. Ajinca scored eight of his 10 points in the final quarter, giving the Pelicans a steadying presence inside when they needed it.
“(Ajinca) can score, especially against (the Nuggets),” the Pelicans’ Norris Cole said. “He’s been in a great rhythm over the past few games, so it’s only right to go to him (in the fourth quarter).”
When the Pelicans last faced the Nuggets in Denver, the Nuggets’ frontcourt featured the likes of Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic and Darrell Arthur. With Mozgov now in Cleveland and Nurkic and Arthur out with injuries, Ajinca and Omer Asik had a distinct advantage over the smaller Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson and Gallinari.
The result: Ten first-half rebounds for Asik, who ended the game a rebound shy of tying his career high with 16. Although Ajinca wasn’t as dominant on the boards, his height and length gave him an edge.
“At one point, (Asik) had 15 rebounds in 24 minutes,” Williams said. “He was really good at nullifying Faried, staying on this left shoulder, not giving him anything easy at the rim. But for him to be able to take care of the pain like that and (Ajinca) comes in and is a great complement offensively — those two have been good for us lately.”
While Cunningham and Ajinca were the heroes, the Pelicans had terrific balance. Gordon, revitalized these past two months, finished with 18 points after a slow start, while Evans continued his string of impressive all-around performances with a game-high 22 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
Cole, proving he’s beginning to find more comfort in Williams’ offense, also provided a boost off the bench with his penetration and defense on the Nuggets’ guards. He finished with 10 points.
Before the game, Williams said his team’s recent come-from-behind victories were signs of growth from his players. That growth continued Sunday, as each time the Nuggets closed the gap, the Pelicans responded, calm and collected, not letting the pressure overwhelm them.
“We’ve been in this position so many times,” Williams said. “Sure, the guys understand we can win the game in different ways. Offensively, it wasn’t there for the full 48 minutes. We found a way to grind it out. For a young team, that’s a big-time moment for us.”
They’ll carry that momentum into Monday night’s game in Dallas, a key Southwest Division matchup.