In the wake of power forward Anthony Davis being injured before and after the All-Star break, the New Orleans Pelicans have been faced with what to do to compensate for the scoring, rebounding and defense lost without him.
No player in the NBA can provide what’s brought by Davis, a versatile standout who leads the league in player efficiency rating at 31.22. But the play of the Pelicans centers — starter Omer Asik and backup Alexis Ajinca — have lessened the pain of the loss.
Heading into back-to-back games at Denver (20-38) on Sunday and at Dallas (39-21 entering Saturday) on Monday, Asik and Ajinca form a formidable duo in the Pelicans (31-27), who got an important three-game home sweep this week. That — coupled with consecutive losses by Oklahoma City (32-27) — has New Orleans a half-game behind the Thunder for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth.
Coach Monty Williams said what his two centers have added of late has been special.
“On both ends of the (court),” he said. “Omer has gotten so much better finishing, dunking the ball. Alexis gives us a post threat. We need those guys. They have been great for us.”
On the surface, Asik, the better defender of the two, and Ajinca, a much more offensive player, comprise a yin and yang at center. But of late, the line has become a bit blurred.
Asik, who has scored 7.4 points per game this season, has averaged 11.5 points on 70.8 percent shooting during the Pelicans’ current four-game winning streak. He was at 13.7 points and 73.3 percent before scoring just five in the win against Miami on Friday.
The uptick in points has been the result of making the most of his opportunities. Asik, who’s 7-foot but not a great leaper, has had his shot get blocked 64 times this season, the sixth-most in the NBA. Of late, though, when he has received passes from teammates, he has dunked.
Asked why he hadn’t done it before, Asik admitted the blocks had frustrated him and gotten into his head.
“(A lack of) confidence,” he said.
But the Pelicans coaching staff continued to implore him to dunk and, when he grabbed an offensive rebound and threw one down in a home victory against the Los Angeles Clippers a month ago, the light seemed to come on.
Playing 23 minutes per game, Ajinca averaged 16.7 points during the homestand, including a career-high 24 on Friday, on 75.0 percent shooting (21-of-28). He also averaged 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, getting three big ones against the Miami Heat, whose penetrating drives were giving the Pelicans fits.
Offensively, Ajinca, who’s 7-2, was known more for his mid-range jump shot more than his low-post prowess. But he has played with much more force down low of late.
In Monday’s win over Toronto, he received a pass in the lane, leaped high and dunked hard. Against Miami, he came from the right side and dunked a lob pass. It resulted in a three-point play at the start of the fourth quarter that started the Pelicans back from a nine-point deficit.
Ajinca said he’s less tentative now.
“Getting the trust of my coaches and teammates and playing a lot of minutes, I started doing stuff I’ve been doing before, but I didn’t get the chance to show it,” he said.
Williams said being in better condition than last season has brought Ajinca a long way.
“He’s always been skilled,” Williams said. “He’s (rolling to the basket) harder, and he’s been in our system now, so when he doesn’t have the shot, he knows the right read off of it.”