When the New Orleans Pelicans were thrashed in a 20-point loss to the Nuggets in Denver on Nov. 21, coach Monty Williams was concerned that his team had strayed from its identity.
Built on principles such as defense first, intensity and transition offense, Williams watched as the Nuggets out-hustled the Pelicans. New Orleans was No. 1 in the NBA in scoring in the lane, but Denver pounded the Pelicans 52-32.
The Nuggets (18-27) can expect a different Pelicans team when they invade Smoothie King Center for Wednesday night’s game, however. The way the Pelicans (24-21) play began to change on Dec. 4 when forward Dante Cunningham replaced waived Darius Miller on the roster. It continued in the same vein to more of what Williams wants when small forward/guard Quincy Pondexter replaced Austin Rivers in a three-team trade on Jan. 12.
“(Pondexter) has some defensive intangibles that he and Dante have brought to the table,” Williams said. “They have toughness, they fight through screens, they’ll make plays that you don’t go over in the scouting report.
“And, they have been in a number of systems, so their IQ for the game is pretty high compared to the young guys who are on the roster.”
With the Pelicans heading into the third game of a six-game home stand, their defense has noticeably picked up, from a physical standpoint and in effectiveness. Williams says some of it is the team better understands what he’s been wanting it to do since November.
However, much of it improved with the addition of Cunningham, who gave the Pelicans another strong defender to go with center Omer Asik, All-Star power forward Anthony Davis and point guard Jrue Holiday, who is out injured.
Then came Pondexter, who has known Cunningham since the two were with the Memphis Grizzlies for the 2011-12 season, when both played in 64 games, starting 13 between them.
“We played a lot together (in Memphis), and we’ve been close ever since,” Pondexter said. “I like what he brings, such as toughness and competitive spirit. I think when guys bring intensity and love for the game, it just rubs off on all the guys, and they’re making the same plays, the hustle plays that you’re making. So it’s contagious.”
The two factored into the Pelicans’ big win Sunday vs. Dallas, with a huge defensive play at the end in which their experience, focus and intensity came into play.
The Mavericks were inbounding the ball with 12.0 seconds left. Cunningham was on small forward Chandler Parsons, who was taking the ball out. Pondexter had taken over the role of guarding Dallas guard Monta Ellis, who had torched the Pelicans for 36 points.
With instructions from Williams not to let Ellis receive the inbounds pass, Cunningham left Parsons and cut off Ellis, who was now double-teamed. The pass then went to Dirk Nowitzki and was picked off by Davis, preserving the victory.
With the meat of this home stand coming up, the Pelicans defense has picked up noticeably from December to January, opponents going from 47.8 percent shooting to 44.1. That has impacted the team’s pace increasing, which has made its shooting more consistent. Ball movement also has gotten better.
“We don’t need the ball,” Cunningham said. “We can both make shots, but we defend, we hustle, we just want to win.”
For Cunningham, that was evident in the victory against Southwest Division leader Memphis on Jan. 9 at Smoothie King. He didn’t score, but had three big shot blocks and seven rebounds and negated Grizzlies physical small forward Tony Allen as a game factor.
Pondexter scored in double figures in three of the previous four games before Monday’s rout of Philadelphia, including 14 against Dallas, in which he also had five rebounds and defended well off the bench.
“They can impact a game in different ways,” Williams said. “They score sometimes, but mostly what they do is bring us energy and defense. They certainly have a great edge about ’em, and they just have some intangibles that you don’t have to teach.”
Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, who was arrested for DUI on Friday, had his first court date Tuesday. In accordance with the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, there would be no punishment from the league until the case is resolved. Depending on the outcome, the league would be able to issue a suspension, a fine or both. Lawson is second in the NBA in assists per game (10.0). … Denver’s loss at the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday was its seventh in a row in a streaky season. The Nuggets have had losing steaks of six, four, three, two, three and seven this season. … In the first meeting, the Pelicans led 14-2 in the first quarter. Denver coach Brian Shaw called timeout and threatened to replace all five starters. By early in the second quarter the Nuggets led 37-26 on their way to a 50-34 bulge late in the quarter.