Almost lost in the spectacular game by Anthony Davis on Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons was the continued excellent play of point guard Tyreke Evans.
While many Pelicans played well during the stretch from Feb. 23 to March 2, when Davis was out for the second time three weeks with a right shoulder sprain, Evans was the catalyst with his ball-handling, assists and the constant pressure he put on defenses.
Davis had 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks and three steals in his return against Detroit. However, Evans backed him with 21 points and nine assists. His drives to the basket got Davis open for both his big jump shots in the game’s final 1:14, and Evans scored on a drive in between.
“I talked to those two about that (Thursday morning), how they have to appreciate each other and everybody on the team,” coach Monty Williams said as the Pelicans prepared for Friday’s game against the Boston Celtics at the Smoothie King Center, with the Memphis Grizzlies coming in on Saturday night. “Tyreke had a really good game.”
As Davis showed Wednesday night, he can carry the Pelicans and also gives them an MVP-type closer, offensively and defensively, for late-game situations. With 21 games left, each carries much significance as New Orleans fights experienced Oklahoma City for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
However, an interesting thing occurred while Davis was out. The team found its identity, Williams and Evans said.
“I think we know our game, guys know their roles,” Evans said. “Guys don’t do anything overboard on the team.”
Williams said that after winning without Davis and after his performance in his first game back, it’s still a team winning in different ways and learning how to win in different ways.
“I think we’re growing that way, with different guys being able to step up and play off those guys, knowing when a guy has a hot hand and learning how to play off that,” he said.
“The one thing I’ve told our guys that we’ve got to hold on to since before the break is playing for each other and playing hard every night. An identity for us has always been playing hard. I don’t think we played for each other early in the season.”
And he doesn’t want to revert to that now.
Evans’ improvement as a point guard has been crucial to the team’s chemistry, its trust of each other, and the resulting wins. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday has been out with a stress reaction in his right lower leg since Jan. 14.
That’s when Evans became the starting point guard. It took six games for him to settle in, but since Jan. 25, he has had double-figure assists 10 times in 18 games. It’s been key in the excellent ball movement of late that has enabled the Pelicans to win and grow.
During the current stretch in which New Orleans has won six of seven games, Evans has averaged 17.7 points but also an impressive 9.3 assists.
“We’ve talked to him about that all year long, how he can be an efficient player by getting off of the ball and scoring,” Williams said. “Tyreke, for most of his career, has been a scorer. When you have guys out there on the floor that can make your job easier, it makes the game more fun.”
Not counting the end of last season, Evans was last a point guard for a long stretch during his Rookie of the Year season with Sacramento in 2009-10. He averaged 20.1 points, but just 5.8 assists.
Experience has made a difference and he is relishing being in the fight for the playoffs for the first time.
“I just know when to go, when to score, when to pass,” he said. “I’m just doing a good job of reading the defense. On the break, guys have been running, and I’ve been giving up, getting assists.”
A victory against the Celtics (24-35) would avenge a 108-100 setback on Jan. 12 at Boston, Holiday’s last game. That came the Pelicans knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies, the No. 2 team in the West, three nights earlier at the Smoothie King as part of a head-scratching scenario of losses to lesser lights that defined the early season.
Now, with Memphis (43-17) the foe Saturday, things are reversed and part of a back-to-back, the Pelicans’ 12th this season. However, for the only time this season, it’s a home back-to-back, and the Pelicans are 21-10 and on a four-game winning streak at Smoothie King.