They fight for rebounds and scrap for loose balls. They look to push the pace and move the ball.
In a way, the Pelicans look a lot like Alvin Gentry hoped they would by the end of the season. And, of course, they look nothing like he expected.
With backups starting and replacement parts playing key roles, the Pelicans beat the Denver Nuggets 101-95 Thursday night at the Smoothie King Center, playing with the intensity and sometimes even the execution that Gentry wants to see.
“I’m just really proud of these guys,” Gentry said after the game. “They play hard. They play together. They try to do everything they can. They don’t read anything in the papers about us not being good enough or anything like that. They just give all the effort they can possibly give, and it’s fun to watch them.”
The Pelicans are short nine players, including seven who are out for the season.
So on Thursday, there was Luke Babbitt — a little-used reserve until this rash of injuries made him a starter — scoring a team-high 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. There was Toney Douglas, who came off the bench all season until starting 12 of the past 13 games, adding 20 points and 10 assists.
There was Tim Frazier, who came to the Pelicans on a 10-day contract before signing through the remainder of the season, finishing with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds and hitting a 3-pointer with 45.4 seconds to play to put the Pelicans ahead 99-91 and all but put the game away.
And there were Jordan Hamilton (14 points, seven rebounds) and James Ennis (11 points, six rebounds) — fresh out of the NBA Development League and playing on 10-day contracts — giving major contributions.
“Awesome,” Frazier said. “You come in this locker room, I think Jordan and James both can attest to it, any time you get a chance to get up in the NBA – all three of us were in the D League – you take advantage of if. All three of us are trying to do that.”
On Thursday, it was role-players-turned-starters who shined early — “Luke Babbitt kicked our ass in the first half,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said afterward — and newcomers who helped the vets seal the game late.
Douglas, Frazier and Dante Cunningham scored seven points each in the quarter.
In one fourth-quarter sequence, Hamilton blocked a Will Barton layup attempt that Frazier turned into a one-man fast break and a three-point play. Frazier’s bucket and free throw put the Pelicans in front 89-82 with 5:42 to play, and his 3-pointer at the 5:42 mark stretched their lead to 92-84.
The Nuggets pulled within 92-89 on Gary Harris’ dunk with 3:03 to play and were down 96-91 when Frazier buried a 3-pointer to put the Pelicans in front 99-91. He raised both hands and showed three fingers on each, then let out a celebratory shout as the Nuggets called for time.
“I play the game with a lot of emotion, so I think that just came out,” Frazier said. “Obviously it was a good emotion, because it came at a good time.”
The Pelicans are showing emotion. And effort. And they’re playing the way Gentry wants them to. They had 29 assists on 40 baskets, displaying the kind of ball and player movement that’s key to Gentry’s style.
“A lot of times people think, ‘Oh, we don’t have the players,’” Douglas said. “But if you do the system right, it’ll still work.”
It’s not working with the players Gentry had in mind. But with his team out of the playoff hunt and playing, as Gentry has said, to establish its culture for next season, he still likes what he sees.
“There is a closeness within this group,” Gentry said. “When you get guys like James and Jordan who are trying to establish themselves in this league and find a way and you get other guys that have been fringe players that haven’t had an opportunity to play very much and you put them all together, I think there is a bond there where they really feel like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to help each other and the more we help each other, the more we’ll help ourselves.’ ”