When Dante Cunningham dived for a loose ball during Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, there were nine minutes left and the New Orleans Pelicans led by 14.
It occurred on the way to a 22-point romp. But coach Monty Williams referred to it as a signature play, saying, “That’s who he is, and that’s who we have to be.”
Williams and Cunningham said he plays like that every possession, regardless of the score — coming up with a big rebound or a loose ball or running down an opponent for a block on the fast break.
“If you’re up by 16, down by 16, it doesn’t matter; it’s how you play,” Cunningham said. “You have to practice good habits because if it’s a situation where it comes down to if you’re down one, is that going to be in you to dive on the floor? That’s what we’re playing for. That’s what we’re practicing for.”
With the Pelicans (39-34) beginning a three-game road trip Wednesday at the Los Angeles Lakers — they desperately need wins as they chase Oklahoma City (42-32) for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot — Cunningham’s dive is a reminder of the force and intensity that certainly will be needed the rest of the way.
It could turn out to be the moment a team of young “character guys” also begins to develop consistent veteran surliness.
“Were’s close; we play in stretches” with force and intensity, Williams said. “Are we there yet? At times. But there are times when we back off. And to play the way I want to play is exhausting.”
The Pelicans began playing with an edge when Cunningham was signed Dec. 4. Quincy Pondexter added to it when he arrived in a trade Jan. 12. Norris Cole being obtained five weeks ago and Toney Douglas being re-signed last week have sharpened it.
The trio of Cunningham, Cole and Douglas have enabled the Pelicans to change their fortunes for the better in games of late, which they were hard-pressed to have before.
“Not calling them that, but Norris and Toney are like bulldogs, all over the place, and Dante is like a Rottweiler,” Williams said. “They really put pressure on the other team, and it’s good for us.”
Cunningham said he likes the references, especially that he is the bigger of the dogs. More than that, though, he likes having more teammates on the second unit who play with his type of intensity and in-your-face defense.
“I love watching those two guys chase the guards,” he said. “It makes my press so much easier when I’m off the ball because I know I have those two guys behind me doing the same thing. Before, with (starters Tyreke Evans) and all them, they play a lot of minutes, so it’s tough for them to get out there and press full court. It’s a taxing obligation.”
The second unit soon will get an edge of a different kind, likely for the first game of the road trip Wednesday. Forward Ryan Anderson practiced fully with the team Tuesday for the first time since he sprained his right medial collateral ligament Feb. 21.
Williams and the Pelicans’ trainers want to wait until Wednesday to see how Anderson responds from Tuesday’s practice. If he is ready, the second unit could be a press-and-burn group of steals and fast-break 3-pointers where the game changes in an instant avalanche of points.
“There’s going to be unbelievable spacing,” Cunningham said. “Having him back, a shooter and in the post, it’s going to be him and (backup center Alexis Ajinca) and the three of us. (Opponents) are going to have to stick with somebody. They’re not going to be able to leave too many guys open because we all can shoot and we have a big-time post presence.”
For the Pelicans, this trip could represent a big-time opportunity with the season dwindling. Facing the Lakers (20-53), then Sacramento (26-47) on Friday, the first two games are winnable.
The Pelicans then play a tough one on Saturday in the second game of a back-to-back at current playoff No. 4 seed Portland. New Orleans is 0-2 against the Trail Blazers.
Oklahoma City, which has a 2½-game lead over the Pelicans, plays Wednesday vs. No. 7 seed Dallas, Friday at No. 2 and Sunday vs. No. 3 Houston, teams against whom it is 2-6 this season.
NOTES: Point guard Jrue Holiday, out since Jan. 12 with a right lower-leg stress reaction, didn’t practice with the team Tuesday. … The Pelicans are 14-21 on the road, including 9-11 against Western Conference teams.