The New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night were having one of those games. Their starting unit just didn’t have a lot of energy, and they fell behind the Sacramento Kings in the first quarter. And the bench had not been much help the previous week during a four-game losing streak.
But with New Orleans clinging to its last bit of hope concerning the postseason — and now, more realistically, a winning season — it got a big lift from its reserves to notch a 102-88 victory Friday night. With 10 games to play, that may be an encouraging sign.
“They’d won some games for us this year,” coach Monty Williams said. “And when they don’t play well, it’s easy to get down on them. But you can’t do that as a coach. You’ve got to find ways to give those guys confidence (and) at the same time understand when to take them out when they’re not playing as well.”
The Pelicans bench outscored the Kings reserves 29-12. Backup point guard Norris Cole led the way with 12 points. Forward Dante Cunningham and center Alexis Ajinca each scored six, and Toney Douglas, another backup point guard, had five. Cunningham grabbed eight rebounds and Ajinca seven, and each blocked a shot.
“I thought Toney and Norris and Dante came into the game and gave an edge,” Williams said. “We didn’t have great energy to start the game, and we didn’t have it to start the third quarter. Those guys came in and changed the game for us.
“Those guys are all defensive guys. They bring a toughness to the team, and it helped us on the offensive end.”
That’s what Williams said he’s hoping will continue through the rest of the season. The defense, he said, was directly related to the Pelicans shooting 51.2 percent. Those four players combined to shoot 13-of-22 (59.1 percent).
That said, all of that came against the 26-46 Kings. At 3 p.m. Sunday, the Pelicans host another also-ran, the Minnesota Timberwolves (16-56), looking to get their second consecutive victory. With a three-game road trip following, it’s another game against a lesser opponent that they can’t let slip away.
The bench’s struggles had come against teams such as Phoenix, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston. That said, Pelicans reserves had come up big against teams just as good during a five-game winning streak when Anthony Davis was out with an injured shoulder.
The struggles oddly began when Davis returned and the reserves were back in their more familiar roles coming off the bench.
Williams said there was a surprise waiting for them: Reserves such as Cole and Ajinca, who had become a go-to player late in games with Davis out, had gained respect.
“I think teams had planned for them,” Williams said. “They’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. Alexis is a guy you have to game-plan for. Most teams know Dante. Norris is another guy; you have to game-plan for him in pick-and-rolls.”
Cole and Douglas sometimes were paired in the back court last season with Miami, they said. They were put in together to speed up the pace, cause havoc and bring energy.
“We’re pretty interchangeable, and we know each other well,” Douglas said. “It makes it fun.”
Williams said the two were in the game together strictly for matchup reasons against the Kings, who had smaller guards in the game. Douglas said he and Cole have played against bigger guards as a tandem — with success.
“We’re both good defenders, and we both can pick (other guards) up full-court,” he said. “We can trap them, too, with our speed and quickness. It was just good for us as a bench to help the team win, and we look forward to doing that more.”