Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, 5-foot-9, didn’t say much when coach Brad Stevens took him out of the starting lineup for matchup reasons against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday.
He let his play show his displeasure. Thomas scored 27 points and stirred up the Celtics, who took a 104-98 victory at the Smoothie King Center.
Stevens said the biggest thing is that Thomas, acquired on the trade deadline from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for former LSU guard Marcus Thornton and a No. 1 pick, is a good fit for the fast-paced Celtics.
“He’s a really good player who fits really well, and that usually turns out good,” Stevens said. “He didn’t say anything when I told him about the lineup change. But he’s a proud guy who works hard.”
It was another nagging loss by the Pelicans (33-29), their 12th this season against a team with a sub. 500 record. It gave Boston (25-35), which started the game two games behind eighth place in the Eastern Conference playoff, a 2-0 sweep of the season series for the first time since 2008-09. It put on hold the Pelicans’ attempt to tie last season’s victory total.
And, it came despite 29 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots by Anthony Davis.
More important, with a big Southwest Division game Saturday against tough, physical Memphis, which is second in the Western Conference, it prevented New Orleans from forging a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot with Oklahoma City. The Thunder was idle Friday but had lost three of its past five games.
“We just didn’t have that extra whatever you want to call it,” coach Monty Williams said, his team slipping into a funk that was more prevalent earlier in the season, before the roster became stronger. “We’ve been getting it from Norris (Cole), Dante (Cunningham). … We just didn’t have that fight tonight to get us through a tough time.”
However, point guard Tyreke Evans, who committed seven of the Pelicans 18 turnovers and was held to 11 points and four assists, laid much of the blame at his feet.
“It was a tough one; we didn’t play our basketball,” he said. “Part of it was me, turning the ball over, just not making good decisions.
“Their bigs did a good job stopping the ball, and I was indecisive.”
The Pelicans had won six of seven and were encouraged by the return of Davis to the lineup after missing six games with a sprained right shoulder.
However, they didn’t get into an offensive rhythm against the quicker Celtics. Marcus Smart, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound rookie guard from Oklahoma State, helped keep Evans in check. He was quick enough to stay in front of him and strong enough to challenge his determined drives to the rim.
“(Smart) didn’t guard him in the fourth quarter, but he did for the first three,” Stevens said. “He’s good at (stripping) the ball, and we did a lot of that in the lane.”
Evans came into the game having averaged 17.7 points and 9.3 assists in the previous seven games. With Evans in check, much of the Pelicans’ offense was bottled up, the turnovers leading to 20 Boston points.
The Pelicans often were reduced to 3-point tries by shooting guard Eric Gordon, who made four of nine in scoring 20 points, and Luke Babbitt, who hit two of three in scoring 12 off the bench. New Orleans shot 8-of-21, including 7-of-17 in the second half when it had few options.
Coupled with 22-of-25 free throw shooting by the Celtics and 10 3s, it was a recipe for victory.
Thomas, who had bedeviled the Pelicans with his quick drives during the first three quarters, sank three 3-pointers in a 3 minutes, 23-second stretch to start the fourth. He then was fouled attempting one at the 8:06 mark and made all three free throws for an 85-73 lead.
Boston build it to 93-78 bulge by 5:46 behind stifling defense and drives to the basket.
New Orleans had six turnovers in the third quarter, pushing its total to 15, as Boston took a 71-68 lead into the fourth after a three-point play by Thomas. The Pelicans are 6-23 when trailing at the end of three.
The Pelicans fell behind 40-29 by 7:30 of the second quarter. However, ignited by its reserves, they fought back to a tie at 47 going into halftime.