A key positive that emerged from the New Orleans Pelicans’ preseason was their showing of sustained intensity. The Pelicans needed polish in other areas, but playing hard, coach Monty Williams said, can mask mistakes.
That was the case in Tuesday’s season opener against Orlando: New Orleans’ aggressive, physical play in a 101-84 victory hid some problems that likely would have been more evident had its intensity been lower and the pace been slower, the players said.
“Our spacing on offense, there were times when we weren’t in the right spots,” Williams said. “But guys were attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line. And even though we missed the free throws, we were able to set our defense. At times we weren’t in the right (pick-and-roll) coverage, but guys were switching properly and kept the ball in front of them. And just rebounding. When we rebound like that, it certainly can cover a mistake.”
The Pelicans get an early measuring stick to see how effective their intensity is — particularly on defense — against the tall and talented Dallas Mavericks at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Smoothie King Center. It’s a game within the Southwest Division, where every team except the Pelicans made the playoffs last season, and this season stands to be even more competitive after Dallas and New Orleans improved with offseason additions.
“Dallas is a very loaded team,” Pelicans guard Eric Gordon said. “They’re very deep. They have a good starting five with a good bench. We have to play a well-rounded game offensively and defensively, and we can’t take possessions off.”
That can be a daunting task for a young team. Former NBA head coach Mike Woodson, now an assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers, said the hardest thing about coaching young players is getting them to play hard consistently. They think they’re playing hard, Woodson said, but they don’t have a clue.
Pelicans third-year guard Austin Rivers can relate to that.
“One thing Coach says is that video doesn’t lie,” Rivers said. “You’re like, ‘Man, we played so hard.’ And the next day, you’re watching film, and it’s like, ‘Man, I’m standing up.’ You think you’re playing hard, but you aren’t. That’s where you have to be hard on yourself individually. You can’t have someone harping on you. You have to own it for yourself.”
The keys for the Pelicans are to be up on the player being guarded, take away things he likes to do and communicate with one another. Gordon said adjusting to the Pelicans’ style — defense first, with intensity — was not easy.
“We play a lot more team defense than individual defense,” he said. “So it’s a lot different. You’re trying to find a rhythm with your teammates as far as guarding (your man) and helping at the same time.”
That could be a challenge against Dallas’ pick-and-roll. It starts with future Hall of Fame power forward Dirk Nowitzki, a great shooter who has learned to get his shots off quicker and will slice an opponent to pieces with passes if it double-teams him the same way.
Last season, the Mavericks signed Monta Ellis, who is great at driving to the basket, which helps give Nowitzki more open shots. This season, Dallas added former Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, who with his outside shooting and ability to drive is also good in the pick-and-roll. Then the Mavericks signed backup point J.J. Barea, whose drives opened up shots during the team’s run to the NBA title in 2011.
But the Pelicans have shown an ability to switch well on pick-and-rolls. And power forward Anthony Davis will be guarding Nowitzki in what shapes up as a good matchup for the Pelicans. Davis, with his length and quickness, is at home on the perimeter, and he may be able to disrupt the Mavs’ plans.
Williams said Davis also may get a chance to guard 6-foot-10 small forward Chandler Parsons.
NOTES: Dallas has won the past seven matchups against New Orleans, averaging 106.3 points in sweeping four games last season. Nowitzki averaged 25.8 points in those games, including 40 on Jan. 11. … Forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who played three years with New Orleans, is a reserve with the Mavericks. … There will be a pregame party outside the arena, starting at 4:30 p.m.