Nikola Mirotic hesitated.
It looked like a pump fake, but he knew it was a moment of second-guessing.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ forward was just minutes into his first outing since recovering from a sprained ankle that sidelined him for 12 consecutive games. And he felt out of rhythm.
The shot fell harmlessly out of the sky, barely reaching the rim. A minute later he missed consecutive free throws.
It was an admittedly shaky return.
“Oh man,” Mirotic said after the Pelicans’ 140-124 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. “That first quarter was rough.”
But, as Mirotic turned around to play defense, he heard Anthony Davis’ voice boom over his shoulder.
“AD said, ‘Take the first one. Don’t hesitate,’ ” Mirotic said. “So I said, ‘He’s right. If you have an open shot, take the open shot.’ Just play simple. That’s what I did. A couple of possessions after that, they went to double against AD and he passed it to me wide open, and I shot that corner in the second quarter. That was all. Playing simple.”
Later in the period, he grabbed another pass from Davis, this one from 29 feet away, and launched again. Buried.
“He was trying to get himself going early and I just kind of wanted to tell him to let it come to him,” Davis said. “I think it was big for him to see his shot go in and from there he started making a bunch of shots.”
In the third, he converted from beyond the arc two more times, eventually finishing the night 4-for-7 on 3-pointers as part of a 17-point output.
It was an illustration of precisely what Mirotic means to these Pelicans. It’s not just hitting 3-pointers, but the confidence he has to shoot them, makes him such a weapon on a team light on traditional sharpshooters and long on creative interior scorers.
“For us, to have him back is huge,” Davis said. “He’s good for us because he’s spacing the floor. He’s another big body. I think we did a good job of rotating him and Jahlil (Okafor) for me and Julius (Randle). So, it’s always really good to get him back on the floor.”
While the Pelicans’ system is a fast-pace attack designed to feast in the paint, the not-so-swift, deep-shooting Mirotic is particularly valuable in it.
Mirotic’s arrival last season, via a trade deadline deal with the Chicago Bulls, helped re-invent the Pelicans offense. With Davis and Jrue Holiday dominating the pick-and-roll, Mirotic pulled defenders out toward the perimeter and often made them pay for trying to provide help.
He also converted three or more 3-pointers in six of the Pelicans' nine playoff games last season, changing the way defenses shaded Davis and Holiday.
“It’s just a lot more space when he’s there,” point guard Elfrid Payton said. “We have more shooters out there and it’s more driving lanes for me, and more driving lanes for Jrue. The defense has to respect his ability to shoot the ball, so it just opens up so much for us.”
Mirotic’s impact will be needed as the Pelicans begin a five-game road trip, tipping off against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Target Center.
Thus far, Mirotic has converted just 35.6 percent of his 188 3-point attempt this season, a pedestrian number that would be one of the lowest marks of his career. However, with his right ankle fully healed for the first time since mid-November, and a pass-first point guard back on the floor, Mirotic said he feels the Pelicans are poised to make a move.
“I think it opens up the floor,” Holiday said. “His capabilities of being able to shoot 35 feet and the way he playmakes out of that, trying to run them off the line, it definitely makes it easier for us. I’m glad he’s back healthy and he can sit down and defend and help us on defense.”