The Pelicans weren’t back to full strength.
In fact, an illness sidelined Anthony Davis for Monday’s 123-114 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. But for the first time in months, the Pelicans are close to getting their full roster back.
And in the process they might have rediscovered their style.
Point guard Elfrid Payton returned to the lineup after missing 30 of the previous 31 games. And he brought several of the elements New Orleans has missed since the Gretna native sprained his ankle and broke his finger in the season’s opening month.
And he didn’t miss a beat.
Despite the Pelicans limiting Payton’s playing time to just six-minute stretches for acclimation purposes, coach Alvin Gentry said the point guard helped push the Pelicans into their best pace in weeks.
“It’s amazing,” said forward Julius Randle, who scored a game-best 33 points. “He pushed the pace. He gets to the ball on defense. He just plays with aggressiveness, which is really good for us.”
Considering Davis is not expected to miss any additional time with his stomach illness, the Pelicans might be on the verge of finding their stride. And it couldn’t come at a better time.
After languishing for the past six weeks and dropping all the way to 14th in the Western Conference standings, the Pelicans’ schedule puts them in a position to pounce right now. Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. tipoff against the Brooklyn Nets continues a run of six consecutive games against opponents who are .500 or worse (Brooklyn, Cleveland, Memphis, Cleveland, Minnesota).
It’s a golden opportunity to post consecutive wins for the first time since Nov. 19.
“We just needed to get a win,” Payton said Monday night. “That’s what it’s all about. I want to do as much to help as possible and try to bring some intensity on defense. But, most importantly, I wanted to try to help find a way to win one.”
While Payton’s return isn’t a salve for all of the Pelicans’ wounds, he helps cover up some of the most exposed areas that have crippled New Orleans over the past several weeks. Primarily, he is a trusted ball-handler and distributor who can stop dribble penetration on the defensive end.
Those skills have been lacking since he exited in the fifth game of the season.
And it’s not just about what Payton does. It’s about what he allows his teammates to do.
“I’m hoping it puts everyone back in their roles they were really comfortable with at the start of the year,” Gentry said. “Obviously, Jrue (Holiday) off the ball has been really, really good and we are asking him to do so much right now. And hopefully, it gives him an opportunity to have a few more minutes on the bench to rest.
“He’s just been playing so many minutes out of necessity, but hopefully with Elfrid back in the rotation, we can buy a few more minutes for Jrue.”
For his part, Holiday is pleased just to see Payton back on the floor at all. And after a difficult stretch of season, the Pelicans know getting their point guard back on the court could provide the catalyst they’ve been emptily searching for during their recent swoon.
“I’m happy for him,” Holiday said. “I’ve been hurt before and been hurt for a while. I know how excited he is to play and how much it sucks to watch. Just to be able to have him back out there from a personality standpoint is great.
“But for what he brings to the team and to the table is so much. He gets to the paint and he puts pressure on guys and defensively we can switch (positions) 1 through 4 and sometimes 1 through 5. It changes a lot of what we can do."