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New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle (30) makes a dunk over LA Clippers center Marcin Gortat (13) in the first half of an NBA basketball game at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, La. Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

Despite cooling down a red-hot Western Conference leader and making a furious third-quarter run, the New Orleans Pelicans dropped a tight home contest to the Los Angeles Clippers, 129-126, Monday night at the Smoothie King Center.

It was a career night from Julius Randle, who finished with 37 points on 15-of-24 shooting from the field, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. He played 39 minutes and started in place of Nikolas Mirotic, who was pulled from Monday’s contest with an illness. Randle’s previous career high of 36 came with the Los Angeles Lakers in a 127-113 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.

The fourth-year forward typically brings a different level of energy to the Pelicans' bench squad, but Randle took advantage of his spot in the starting lineup, headlining New Orleans' 36 points in the paint with four first-half dunks of his own and 26 points in the game's first 24 minutes.

But his offensive spark didn't translate to the other end for New Orleans. Yet again, the team struggled on defense early on, giving up a season-high 77 points in the first half, including 41 in the second quarter. Despite shooting 51 percent as a team — including 6 for 16 from beyond the arc — they trailed by 12, 77-65, at the break.

"I thought we played well, but they got separation at one stage, and we missed some easy shots while they made some," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "But I thought the guys came out in the second half, and we competed like crazy. Whenever they tried to knock us out of the box, we came back."

The Clippers, led by a team-high 27 points from Tobias Harris, ran off a 10-1 run early in the third quarter to push their lead to 18 points, 90-72. But together, Randle and Jrue Holiday, who finished with 32 points and 14 assists in 42 minutes, helped the home team claw back with a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. With 12 minutes to go, they trailed 101-97.

A Holiday trey pulled the Pelicans within one, 115-114 with 7:06 to go, and Darius Miller’s long-range jumper with 5:24 left gave New Orleans its first lead since 3:13 in the first quarter, 117-115. Their lead would grow to four after an Anthony Davis tip-in, but Randle went up for an offensive rebound against Danilo Gallinari and picked up a tick-tack sixth foul, capping his 39 minutes, signaling a momentum shift with just over four minutes to go.

"I've got to be a little more careful with the fifth one," Randle said. "I shouldn't have gotten that, but when you're playing aggressive and trying to make something happen, that happens sometimes."

The teams still stood tied, 123-all, with 1:41 remaining, but after Davis missed the first of a pair of free throws with 31 seconds left and a chance to tie it, Lou Williams drove left on the shoulder and sunk a long-range two to give the Clippers the lead for good.

"That's what he does," Holiday said. "At that point, you've got to hope he misses, but going left, that's what he does."

E’Twaun Moore missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer with an attempt to tie it.

The Pelicans (12-13) have experienced plenty of poor starts so far this season, but Holiday said this one felt different.

"When we're up with three or four minutes to go, we have to execute and keep them at bay," Holiday said. "But it came down to the wire, and they made more plays than we did."

As a team, the Clippers shot 59 percent from the field, including 40 percent from beyond the arc. Gallinari followed Harris with 24 points, and Williams came off the bench for 20.

Davis finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds.

Follow Nathan Brown on Twitter, @nbrownadvocate.