LOS ANGELES — Buried in the disappointment of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 120-100 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night was a glimmer of hope for the future.
Pelicans coach Monty Williams might have found the makings of a viable second unit.
Sure, the Clippers starters outscored the Pelicans starters by 31 points in the first and third quarters.
But in the second quarter, the New Orleans bench, including newcomers Dante Cunningham and Gal Mekell, sparked a rally that produced a 36-20 swing and forged a 54-54 tie at halftime. The Pelicans reserves outscored their Clippers counterparts 21-5 in the quarter and held them without a single rebound.
“Our second-unit guys went out there and played with energy — that’s what we need to have,” said Pelicans forward Luke Babbitt, one of the few Pelicans starters who was on his game early by hitting 4-of-4 on 3-pointers. “We were digging out of a hole even from the beginning. We have to do a better job coming out of the gate.
“That is a good team playing at home, and they are playing in rhythm right now. They have played well for the past several weeks (seven consecutive victories) No excuses, but that is a really good team.”
Pelicans sixth man Ryan Anderson had 12 points in the second quarter. Backup center Alexis Ajinca had four rebounds in six minutes. Cunningham, in just his second game for New Orleans, stayed on the floor even when the Pelicans starters returned in the second quarter and was +13 (point differential) at halftime. Mekel, making his debut, played in tandem with Austin Rivers and had three assists (but two turnovers) in his first 3 minutes, 35 seconds.
“I thought the second quarter was the quarter we tried to hang our hats on,” Williams said. “The third quarter was tough. We had four stops in the whole third quarter. That was a tough one to swallow.”
The Clippers delivered a knockout blow in the third, scoring 39 points to take a 15-point lead into the fourth.
“I thought they ratcheted their offense up and their defense,” Williams said. “We scored 24 points, but we just could not get a stop. They shot the ball extremely well. Our first- and third-quarter defense let us down tonight.”
It didn’t help that All-Star forward Anthony Davis was poked in the right eye with 8:16 left in the third quarter. A contact lens was dislodged, Davis’ eye was watering profusely, his eyelid was swelling, and he had to go to the bench with the Pelicans down by four points. When he returned with 3:28 left in the third, the Clippers were ahead 83-74.
Davis finished with a team-high 26 points (but only three rebounds) in 32 minutes.
He had played the entire first quarter but had only two field-goal attempts, hitting one.
“We were sharing the ball a lot better than we did in Golden State (Thursday), but at the same time it was not enough,” Davis said. “I have to do a better job of moving the ball a little bit more, making the extra pass.”
Davis and Babbitt, the other starting forward, didn’t have an assist between them in the game. But they shot the ball well, 13-for-21 combined. Mekel had six assists in 10 minutes to match Rivers and starting point guard Jrue Holiday for the Pelicans lead.
“I’m still learning our system, our offense and our plays,” said Mekel, who signed Friday. “Like I said this morning, I have been here for less than 24 hours.
“I really thought we fought back tonight. They (Clippers) started very strong. They shot the ball extremely well tonight (55.1 percent overall, 51.7 on 3-pointers). And in the end, they are a good team and we could not make stops in the fourth quarter.”
Although his passing skills were as advertised, Mekel missed all four of his field-goal attempts.
“For me, conditioningwise I felt good,” he said. “I’m still a little rusty, but in another few days I will be in good shape.”