Jrue Holiday charged the New Orleans Pelicans bench with a challenge Saturday afternoon.
Coach Alvin Gentry announced before the game that routine starters Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton were inactive due to a pair of right-ankle sprains. The pair average more than 32 points and 17 rebounds so far this season. Payton looked primed to make his return earlier this week after six missed games, while Mirotic’s ankle flared up after Wednesday’s win over the Bulls.
What was the solution?
“We just really have to find a way,” Holiday said. “Some people just have to step up, and we have the guys here that can do that.”
Julius Randle wasn’t within earshot at the time, but the early season Sixth Man of the Year candidate fit the bill, making his second start of the season while scoring 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting and grabbing a season-high 15 rebounds as the Pelicans pulled back to .500 with a 119-99 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Randle started for an injured Anthony Davis against the Jazz in October, but he played a season-low 18 minutes and managed just 12 points, more than five below his season average of 17.6. He grabbed a team- and season-high 38 minutes Saturday, scoring the first points for either team in all four quarters.
“I think he’s done a good job finding his niche with this team,” Gentry said of Randle after Saturday’s game. “He does a good job pushing the ball when he rebounds it. He’s a physical guy offensively, and he does a good job of getting it and putting himself in position to create contact or put it in the basket.”
His nine first-quarter points helped give the Pelicans an early 33-21 edge before the Suns’ Devin Booker closed the first quarter with five consecutive points — a trend that would continue until the game’s final minutes. Randle’s layup with 1:26 left in the first half gave New Orleans its largest lead of the game, 61-48, before Phoenix closed with the final five points of the half.
The Pelicans led by as many as 18 midway through the third after a 10-4 run that included a pair of 3-pointers from Wesley Johnson and Holiday over 2:20, but Booker’s buzzer-beating half-court heave brought the Suns back within single-digits, 91-82.
Still leading by just 10 with 4:58 left, Darius Miller gave New Orleans a bit of breathing room with a 3-pointer off an assist from Randle, sparking a 13-0 run that put the game out of reach.
Davis led the squad with 26 points and 13 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the year. E’Twaun Moore dished in 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, while Holiday added 19, going 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. On the other end, the 2017-18 First Team All-Defense selection hampered Booker all evening, holding him to 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
“You’re not going to guard him (Booker) any better than that,” Gentry said.
“I think it was a lot of teamwork,” Holiday said. “I was trying to make him a passer rather than a playmaker, forcing someone else to be a playmaker for them, and that really benefitted us.”
In holding Booker more than 14 points below his season average, the Pelicans kept their opponent under 100 points for the second consecutive game. As the injury bug has plagued New Orleans early this campaign, Davis said his team’s resiliency — especially on the defensive end — is what will keep the Pelicans toward the top of the Western Conference, where he believes they belong.
“It’s amazing when everybody starts clicking, guys just making shots and playing defense, playing for each other,” Davis said. "When we’re doing that with everybody in a rhythm and a groove, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”