This isn’t what tanking looks like.
When Jrue Holiday bodied up on Gary Harris, ripped the ball from his hands, stopped on a dime to grab a steal at the baseline, jumpstarting a fast-break, dribbling around three defenders at the 3-point line, before completing a game-clinching three-point play layup, that wasn’t a race to the bottom.
Yes, all of that happened. In one dizzying sequence, during the final minute of the New Orleans Pelicans’ stirring 120-112 win over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night in the Pepsi Center.
After so much handwringing about the implications of playing without Anthony Davis in the wake of his trade request, Holiday’s display defined winning with integrity. And Davis was nowhere to be found, since the Pelicans held him out the entire game because of injury precaution, playing its second game in two nights.
And, just as the Pelicans have proven so often since Davis requested to depart New Orleans, they overcame a talent discrepancy by simply playing harder than their opponent. It pays off.
And this wasn’t a ho-hum regular-season NBA victory. It’s objectively difficult for even the best teams in the league to win in Denver (owner’s of the NBA’s best home record at 27-6) on the second night of a back-to-back.
But the Pelicans pulled it off, even after allowing 39 points in the first quarter. And they did it by simply playing harder than their opponent.
“We have to if we want to win,” Holiday said. "Sometimes, it’s a little easier with Anthony (Davis) out there, where talent just takes over. But, when he’s not there and we’re on a back-to-back, we just have to be scrappy.
“I know Julius (Randle) is, I know E.P. (Elfrid Payton) is, myself and Frank (Jackson), we have a lot of guys that’s going to play hard and give us a good boost.”
The surge in energy from the Davis-less Pelicans has been the most encouraging part of a dismal, disappointing and distracting season. While New Orleans has been far from perfect while playing Davis either limited minutes or holding him out entirely, there hasn’t been a total bust of a night over the past three weeks.
Even in losses, the Pelicans are in contention until the final minute, utilizing a vastly improved defensive effort and a dedication to full-court movement to close late deficits.
Can they carry a similar plucky approach into the finale of this Mardi Gras road trip, tipping off on Tuesday at 8 p.m. against the Utah Jazz in Vivint Smart Home Arena?
“We have a lot of talent on this team and guys who are willing to step up and make plays when we need to,” rookie Frank Jackson said Saturday. “Like I said, I think we played really hard. We started off a little slow, but picked it up and got the job done.”
Over the past five games, the Pelicans are outscoring their opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, the No. 8 ranking in the league. Davis hasn’t played a fourth-quarter minute since the All-Star break, with the team and him reaching an agreement on a limited rotation.
But, with Holiday and Randle recognizing and embracing their increased roles, the Pelicans have gained respect from much of the league, not willing to simply tally losses despite Davis’ impending departure.
“I think when we play hard and we play unselfishly, which we do 99 percent of the time, and we execute, I think we are pretty good,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “I mean, we have competed really well against most of the teams we’ve come up against.”