When 7-foot, 255-pound center Omer Asik fought for a loose rebound under the basket, then retrieved the ball and dunked, the New Orleans Pelicans’ erupted in cheer.
That gave the Pelicans a 19-point lead with six minutes left in a 115-100 victory against Atlanta on Monday that ended the Hawks’ 19-game winning streak. Although the Pelicans already were in control, there was a reason for the team’s excitement after the play.
“That was a signature play for us, because he worked to get the ball, and to finish it the way he finished it kind of gave us some juice,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Our bench, even our coaching staff, was going kind of nuts on that play, because that’s the kind of play that can give you a lot of juice going forward.”
Asik had a game-high 17 rebounds, teaming with All-Star power forward Davis to get 30 in a game in which the Pelicans pounded the Hawks 52-32 on the boards.
Going forward, the Pelicans have games Wednesday and Friday, home and away, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who trail New Orleans by two games in the battle for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
Asik’s rebounding and defense already has played a role in the Pelicans being 2-0 against the Thunder this season.
He grabbed 14 in a 112-104 victory at Smoothie King Center on Dec. 1, and he and Davis each had 12 as the Pelicans ground out a big 101-99 win at Oklahoma City on Dec. 21. In both games, the Pelicans out-rebounded the Thunder, who lead the league in rebounding. That helped to slow Oklahoma City’s fast break and keep explosive point guard Russell Westbrook under control.
“Omer and I just make sure we protect the paint defensively, and when they shoot the ball, make sure the team doesn’t have another opportunity to get it,” Davis said.
The Pelicans head into these two key games playing much improved defense — and of an aggressive, physical nature, part of why they have won six of their past seven games, including four of five in this six-game homestand.
Asik has just four blocks in that span, but Williams and Davis said his changing shots in lane, which was the case against Atlanta, has been integral. So has his communication.
“Omer has been really good around the basket, he and AD,” Williams said. “Omer is really good at moving his feet, and he understands game plans about as well as anybody I’ve been around. He’s talking to guys on the floor. He knows tendencies. For a guy that big, he moves his feet really well.”
The Pelicans have been moving their feet well on defense, partly because they’re more familiar with Williams’ system. However, it has been bolstered by the addition of forward Dante Cunningham (Dec. 4) and guard/forward Quincy Pondexter (Jan. 12), who each can guard three positions.
“We’re definitely laying our hats on defending right now,” Davis said. “We’re doing a great job of staying in front of the ball, not over-helping and giving up 3s.”
Shooting guard Eric Gordon has averaged 16.9 points the past seven games, shooting 54.3 percent on 3-point attempts. Not lost for Gordon, however, has been his work on defense, particularly against point guards.
And Pondexter has been able to come in as a sort of relief pitcher against the likes of Monta Ellis as the Pelicans have done a better job keeping perimeter players out of the lane.
With starting point guard Jrue Holiday out, that again will be the challenge for the Pelicans against Westbrook, especially if small forward Kevin Durant sits out with a sprained left big toe. Durant, who played in the first game against the Pelicans but missed the second one, sat out Monday’s win against Orlando and is questionable for Wednesday night.
In taking the two games thus far, New Orleans has beaten Oklahoma City by getting 12 more rebounds, committing 11 fewer turnovers, getting 23 more assists and committing seven fewer fouls.
The Pelicans decided not to retain backup point guard Nate Wolters, who just completed his second 10-day contract. He initially was signed on Jan. 14, then re-signed on Jan. 24. “If we re-signed him, we’d have to re-sign him for the rest of the year,” Williams said. “It kind of blows up your flexibility. So we just decided to go a different direction. We’re tossing around some names right now. We’re looking at a guy we may bring in as an insurance policy because of Jrue (Holiday’s) situation, but we’re looking forward to getting Jrue back here soon.” Holiday has been out since Jan. 14 with a stress reaction in his lower left leg. It was expected to miss two to four weeks. … The Thunder has lost four of its past six games, with all of the losses on the road.