It was an eye-catching debut for the New Orleans Pelicans’ two brightest offseason additions.
Both Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle required no lag time to get in sync, excelling in the exact roles pitched to them in free agency. It all came to fruition in the Pelicans’ 131-112 dismantling of the Houston Rockets on opening night.
Now the Pelicans have an opportunity to show their fresh look to a home crowd, in the first regular-season game at Smoothie King Center at 7 p.m. Friday against the Sacramento Kings.
In crushing the Rockets, owners of the NBA’s best record last year, Payton and Randle didn’t just fill up the stat sheet with empty numbers. The Pelicans’ new point guard and power forward flowed seamlessly into the team’s up-tempo system, attacking nature and versatile defense.
And their fit within coach Alvin Gentry’s lightning-quick, eight-man rotation provided complementary balance to a variety of lineups.
But let’s at least start with the box score. Because it does tell a story all by itself.
Payton recorded a triple-double in his debut, notching 10 points, assists and rebounds while playing both alongside and apart from Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.
“Elfrid did a great job,” Anthony Davis said. “He pushed the pace. He got the ball up the floor. He was aggressive on both ends of the floor. He had a triple-double in his first game and helped the team. Pretty impressive.”
Randle, meanwhile, dropped 25 points on just 15 shots off the bench, often wrangling the scoring load on reserve-heavy units. He stretched the defense with a pair of 3-pointers and grabbed eight rebounds as well, successfully pairing with both Davis and Nikola Mirotic.
It was, analytically, a superb performance from both.
But the nature of their performance leaves the Pelicans even more optimistic than the raw production amassed.
Yes, it was one game, Gentry repeatedly said after the stirring win, but it was a attention-grabbing one. It showed the Pelicans haven’t lost what made them dynamic last year, despite replacing two household names — DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo — with two younger, relatively unproven commodities.
On Wednesday, both Payton and Randle took turns replicating their predecessors' best traits.
Randle’s strength and soft touch allowed him to attack the paint with the ball in his hands as part of lineups without Davis and divert defensive attention from Davis when they played together. Most memorably, Randle and Davis played off of each other in a two-man game late in the fourth quarter, freeing up Randle to toss easy alley-oops for Davis.
It was a stark reminder of when Cousins and Davis converted the same big-to-big passing during the All-Star center’s tenure in New Orleans.
“So, that was cool,” Randle said. “We actually have been working on it. We got two back-to-back, and that kind of like sealed the game. So, that was good.”
Payton, meanwhile, was aggressive in his drives, rebounded proficiently to start fast breaks and blitzed pick-and-rolls defensively to force Rockets’ guards to give up the ball.
And while Gentry pointed out a handful of occasions when Payton was turning to him to call a play — which is a rarity for the turbocharged Pelicans — the guard from Gretna ran the floor effectively and sliced the Rockets’ defense to set up easy baskets.
But is Payton’s triple-double performance replicable?
“Oh, for sure,” Davis said. “He’s a big guard. He can rebound. He can get in the paint and score. He can finish. And he can pass.
“So there’s really no reason he can’t average a triple-double.”
So after a summer of handwringing about whether the Pelicans did enough to replace Rondo and Cousins, the early returns are on their side. Yes, there are 81 games remaining, but after just one night, the blueprint is firmly in place.
“It felt amazing,” Davis said. “When Niko is able to shoot the ball the way he shot and Julius is able to push it rebounding and get into the paint and dominate, it feels good to have all of those guys who want to win and want to be here.
“Anytime our entire team is clicking, not just the big guys but the guards too, it feels good, and we’re playing with a lot of chemistry right now.”