The New Orleans Pelicans repeatedly have said that fixing their stale offense has to start with defense.
That was evident Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with point guard Jrue Holiday leading the way. Holiday led a second-quarter aggressive defense that buried the Thunder and helped key a big 112-104 victory at Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans (8-8) ended a three-game losing streak with a tough three-game Western Conference road trip beginning Thursday at Golden State.
“Jrue is good,” Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook said. “I know from the past he’s able to hold his own and play his game.”
Key was Holiday’s defense against Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook scored 19 points, but it came on 6-of-17 shooting, and he had seven turnovers. Holiday, meanwhile, had 16 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, clearly bothering Westbrook.
Tyreke Evans closed out the Thunder with 15 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. However, the Pelicans had three players with double-doubles. Anthony Davis, who will be on the cover of Sports-Illustrated’s Dec. 8 issue, had another excellent all-around game, with 25 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and four blocks. Ryan Anderson had 23 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.
Center Omer Asik scored just four points but had 14 rebounds as the Pelicans won that battle 48-44.
The game marked the return of Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reigning most valuable player. Durant scored 27 points but he, too, was unable to take over the game. The Thunder (5-13) had won its past two games.
The Pelicans weathered a late storm, as the Thunder cut a once-commanding lead to 87-82 a minute and a half into the fourth quarter behind backup guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
But the Pelicans responded with defense. Leading 94-85, Davis blocked Jackson’s shot, and Evans scored on the break. Davis later got a steal that led to a layup by Evans, and New Orleans was back in command, 100-85 at 6:21.
Davis scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds, leading the way as New Orleans surged to a surprising 69-52 halftime lead, besting high-scoring Oklahoma City 40-26.
Although Davis led the way with his scoring and all-out play, the key to the Pelicans’ first half was the play of point guard Holiday against Westbrook. Westbrook played with extremely high energy in wrecking the New York Knicks with 32 points in 24 minutes Friday in his first game back after missing a month with a broken index finger. He was in attack mode again, but Holiday cut him off at the pass with his defense, blocking his shot on drives when he wasn’t chasing him down and stealing the ball.
Westbrook was held to 2-of-10 shooting, his only saving grace coming on 5-of-6 free-throw shooting.
The teams were tied at 41 at 5:43 of the second quarter when Davis stole an Oklahoma city outlet pass and passed to Evans for a layup. When Holiday made a steal and passed to Luke Babbitt for a 3 on the break at 4:11, it pushed the lead to 49-43.
However, it was just 55-50 with 2½ minutes left. Holiday steals led to a layup by Evans at 1:31 and a 61-55 lead and a 3-pointer by Anderson at 1:01 and a 64-52 margin. After a three-point play by Davis on a run-out with 33.6 seconds showing, Holiday jacked Westbrook from behind and passed to Davis for a free-throw line jumper with 29 seconds left for the final margin.
Getting stops, getting out on the break, and driving to the basket, New Orleans shot 15-of-19 (51.7 percent) in the quarter and ended the half at 50 percent (25-of-50). The Pelicans had 32 points in the paint to 18 for the Thunder.
However, Oklahoma City made an adjustment at halftime, initiating its offense closer to the free throw line in the third quarter. The Thunder made shots, going 10-of-23, and that slowed the Pelicans’ break and momentum.
New Orleans made just four of 18 shots in the quarter, scoring 16 points.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, they played just enough defense to keep it from being totally onesided, and went into the fourth quarter still leading, 85-74. The Pelicans had led by as much as 81-64 in the quarter before simply being outworked down the stretch by a team with big-time playoff experience. That gave OKC a chance entering the fourth.
New Orleans led 29-26 after a cold start. Davis, however, was hot, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds.