Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry used the words “appropriate fear” when talking about the correct approach to facing the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center.
No one listened to him for most of the first half — but as it turned out, they still had little cause for worry.
The Cavs’ hot start and an inattentive opening 21 minutes created a deficit that mounted to as many as 16 points before the Pelicans woke up and won going away, 140-124.
Taking advantage of a friendly portion of their schedule, the Pelicans have won three in a row for the first time in nearly two months, coming within two games of .500 as they try to work their way up the Western Conference standings.
Anthony Davis scored 25 of his 38 points in the second half, adding 13 rebounds and seven assists. Frank Jackson added 19 off the bench and went 4 of 4 on 3-pointers.
The Pelicans (20-22) seized control on back-to-back 3-pointers by Tim Frazier and Jackson in front of their bench to start the fourth quarter, taking their first double-digit lead a little later in a game that finally played out the way it looked on paper.
The Cavaliers (8-34), who have the worst record in the NBA, were on the road end of a back-to-back and had been blown out by the Pelicans 133-98 on Saturday at home. They entered on a 10-game skid, including five defeats by at least 20 points and only one that was closer than eight.
None of that mattered early, when Cleveland could not miss. The Cavaliers hit all eight of their 3-point attempts in the first quarter, and only back-to-back blocked shots at the rim by Davis kept them from a season high for points in the opening period. They settled for a 38-25 lead, extending it to 48-32 on Jordan Clarkson’s deep 3 early in the second quarter.
The Pelicans did not help their cause with some seriously sloppy play. In one sequence, Jrue Holiday dribbled the ball off his leg after catching a pass with no one around him, Julius Randle rolled his right ankle as he got stripped in the lane, forcing him to limp to the locker room briefly before returning, and Clarkson cruised in for a lay-up after stealing a Holiday pass.
That basket forced a Pelicans timeout with the Cavaliers leading 57-43 at the 5:35 mark, proving Gentry’s pre-game words prescient.
“We’re not Golden State, we’re not Houston, we’re a team that’s out of the playoffs right now,” he said. “They (the Cavs) are very capable. They are an NBA team. They’ve had some wins. If you don’t approach it that way, you get yourself in a lot of trouble. If we’re going to get back in the playoff race, we can’t afford home losses against anybody.”
They were not about to lose this one, going ahead for good midway through the third quarter. After blistering the nets early, Cleveland hit only five of its next 20 3-point attempts.
Returning from a 12-game absence caused by a sprained right ankle, Nikola Mirotic was rusty when he entered late in the first quarter, tossing up an air ball, but he finished with 17 points in 22 minutes, hitting four 3-pointers.
“It just gives us another shooter and another good player,” Gentry said. “Everybody talks about the shooting, but he’s also a very good rebounder. It just gives me another big guy in the rotation.”
With Mirotic back, New Orleans is only missing E’Twaun Moore from its full lineup — but the level needs to rise soon if the Pelicans really want to make a run.
Their three-game streak has come against two teams (Cleveland twice and Memphis) who have not win since before Christmas, excepting the Grizzlies beating the Cavs on Dec. 26.