A miraculous six-game comeback with 20 left to play this season aside, the Pelicans' plan post-All-Star break has been playing the long game – giving their young foundation that has shown sporadic signs of stardom ample chances to develop while protecting the load of their current leader and future trade asset.
That reliance on youth put the home squad in a deep hole early, as the Pelicans fell behind as many as 16 points in the first half to the visiting Philadelphia 76ers. After both teams struggled from the field early on – combining for 6-of-22 shooting to start, the club fighting for a top-three playoff spot in the East found a way to right the ship sooner than the one putting the onus on its young players to carrying heavier loads.
In the end, that early rough patch, including a 65-52 halftime deficit, proved too much to overcome, despite a frantic comeback in the final two minutes, as the Pelicans (27-35) fell one shot short in their 111-110 loss to the 76ers (39-22).
“One of the things we’ve got to try and do, we’ve got to put those (young) guys in situations like that as we did tonight,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “And we can see how far they’ve come.”
In his newly constructed role, playing limited minutes while keeping the NBA police at bay, Anthony Davis finished with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field in 21 minutes. Slightly tweaked from previous games, Davis saw the floor in the first three quarters, rather than just the first and third, but exited with 5:11 left in the third quarter and did not return.
Gentry downplayed any notion of his team playing harder without their superstar forward on the floor, but his team’s flow and execution brought credence to the possibility. The Pelicans shot 32.1 percent from the field in the first quarter, despite an early 13-6 lead, and finished the first half at just a 37.5 clip. The majority of New Orleans’ halftime hole came with the second-string on the floor while Davis and Jrue Holiday rested in the second.
But Davis leaving in the third coincidentally saw his team’s resurgence.
Gentry’s young squad, including Elfrid Payton, Jahlil Okafor and Cheick Diallo suddenly flipped a switch in the closing minutes of the period, inching within eight. Holiday’s return to the court after a lengthy reprieve with 7:58 left, his team trailing 104-94, saw the Pelicans return to near peak form. Payton’s layup with 4:19 left cut Philadelphia’s lead to six, and Holiday slashed it to three with a trey, 1:36 to go. His free throw with under 20 seconds to go put his team within two (110-108), and Julius Randle’s layup off an assist from Holiday brought them within one with just 10.9 seconds remaining.
As Jonathon Simmons missed a pair of free throws at the other end, New Orleans earned a chance for the last shot, but Jimmy Butler came up with a block of E’Twaun Moore’s off-line 3-pointer, preserving the narrow victory for the visitors.
Davis, still not used to his re-found role resulting from his Jan. 28 public trade demand, said watching while his team desperately tried to claw all the way back from its early struggles was hard, but he gave praise to Holiday and his younger teammates for the effort and drive they displayed late.
“It was amazing. The guys fought hard and had a chance to win the game several times,” he said. “It’s all you can ask for, for the guys to go out there and just play.
“I’ll sit on the bench and cheer for these guys. They did a good job tonight.”
Holiday led his team with 22 points off 7-of-16 shooting to go with seven assists and five rebounds. Randle followed with 19 points and 14 boards, but his inefficient 6-of-18 shooting reflected his team’s shooting woes they couldn’t overcome.
Tobias Harris led all scorers with 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting for Philadelphia, along with 10 rebounds. J.J. Redick followed with 16 points to go with Ben Simmons’ double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds.