Jrue Holiday could hear Tyreke Evans’ voice in his ear. Or maybe it was Anthony Davis’.
Regardless, there was a Pelicans teammate behind Holiday on Saturday night as he defended the Houston Rockets’ James Harden. He would hear a voice or voices barking directions, telling him where his help defense was, which way to try funneling Harden as he defended him off the dribble.
“I guess the worst thing for a defender is to feel like you’re on an island by yourself,” Holiday said. “My teammates made it really easy for me. Tyreke was yelling in my ear where to send him if I was going to shade him one way.”
You can see a difference in the Pelicans defense over the past two weeks. Maybe more importantly, you can hear one.
“Sometimes down the stretch, when you’re tired, you stop talking,” Davis said. “Now we’re talking the whole game. It just makes things a lot easier. I think that’s why our defense is improving.”
And it is improving. Though the Pelicans, who play the Magic at 6 p.m. Monday in Orlando, still have considerable strides to make — they rank 29th in the 30-team NBA in defensive rating, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions — they’ve shown improvement in recent games.
Over its past 10 games, New Orleans is allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions, 22nd in the league over that span, and that includes a 130-125 shootout win at Denver.
“I think we’re a much better team the last eight, 10 games defensively,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Obviously the Denver thing is kind of a crazy situation. That’s not the norm. But I think we’ve been pretty good defensively.”
That’s been especially true in the past three games — home wins against Portland and Houston with a loss at Miami in between — in which New Orleans is allowing 97.6 points per 100 possessions. Only four teams have been better over their past three games.
“I just think guys are really starting to get it,” guard Eric Gordon said.
By that he means the Pelicans are starting to grasp the concepts in assistant coach Darren Erman’s defense, which relies in part on proper communication and rotation to prevent easy baskets around the rim.
New Orleans allows 42.5 points per game in the paint, 12th-fewest in the league. Over the past 10 games, they’re giving up 37.2 paint points per game. In the past three games, that number has dipped to 28.7.
There are a number of factors in the improvements.
Some, Gordon said, are taking place at the other end of the court, where the Pelicans focused Saturday on ball movement and taking quality shots, which spaces the floor and cuts down on the number of transition opportunities off missed shots.
“When (we) don’t take a lot of good shots, we’re just putting pressure on ourselves on defense,” Gordon said. “That’s why we let teams score a lot of points. But when you make shots and you see the ball going in, now you’re playing against a team in the half court.”
Another factor is that center Omer Asik is getting healthy after dealing with a calf strain at the start of the season. Davis called Asik “the anchor” of the defense for his communication, his ability to guard bigger players and his rebounding.
Asik had eight rebounds against the Rockets, and rebounding is critical for the Pelicans. Their inability to end defensive sequences with a rebound has been costly even as their first-shot defense has improved.
Over the past six games, New Orleans is allowing 12.2 offensive rebounds per game, fourth-most in the league. In that same span, opponents are scoring 17 second-chance points per game, also fourth-most in the NBA.
That’s uncharacteristic for a team that on the season gives up the 11th-fewest second-chance points at 12 per game.
“We could have been actually blowing teams out, but giving up offensive rebounds is hurting us,” Davis said. “We’ve got to do a better job rebounding, get back to rebounding.”
There still are improvements to make in communication and rotation, too, but the Pelicans are getting better. If you listen, you can hear it.
“We’re just trusting each other, helping each other, talking to each other,” Davis said. “It’s nothing different than (the defense) we were running since preseason. It’s the same things. I think we’re just starting to have a better understanding of the defense and our assignments and our schemes and what we need to run against certain teams.”