Pelicans' version of '48 minutes of hell' making lasting impression
NEW ORLEANS — When Dante Cunningham and Solomon Hill found out they’d both start against the Dallas Mavericks two games ago, they knew they’d have to make the most of the opportunity. The New Orleans Pelicans‘ two healthy small forwards had started a combined 30 games but rarely had they shared the court together.
“Me and Dante were pressing that we find success with this unit or we’ll probably never see each other again,” Hill said at the time.
After three straight wins while committed to a small-ball starting lineup that deploys Anthony Davis at center, it will be hard to break them apart.
“I told Dante, I call it ’48 minutes of hell’ when we’re out there,” Hill said after a 104-92 win over the New York Knicks earned the Pelicans a fourth straight win, tying their season high. “If it’s not me, it’s him. When we’re both out there, it’s a different dynamic [because] we can switch things. And we love that. We never really played with each other, and up until this point we had never had a chance to play and be successful.”
The duo was also among the six New Orleans shooters to knock down two 3-pointers as a Pelicans team that began the season as one of the worst from long range finished above 38 percent from beyond the arc for the sixth time in their past seven games. Cunningham and Hill, who spot up from the short corners in the Pelicans’ new spread-out attack, have even taken to calling themselves “The Corner Boys,” in a nod that any journalist would greet with a rousing approval.
The Pelicans allowed 10 offensive rebounds but limited a sizable Knicks frontline to an eight-rebound advantage overall and ran back 30 points on fast breaks in one of the more impressive displays of Gentry Ball this season.
“This is how we want to play,” said Davis, who finished with 23 points and 18 rebounds. “We want to be a team that can get out and run. We’re able to do that with the small lineup.”
But the Pelicans have dazzled on that end at times under Gentry’s watch, even during the morass of last season’s final month, when the offense flowed through the likes of Luke Babbitt. The thoughts of sustainability elicited by what the Pelicans have strung together at the end of December, when their playoff chances had dwindled into the single digits, comes as a result of their ability to maintain what they’ve built on the defensive end without the usual beef in the frontcourt.
Traditional centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca haven’t logged a minute the past three games, but after winning a shootout against Dallas, the Pelicans have limited their past two opponents to 39 percent and 38 percent from the field, respectively.
The key, according to Davis, has been the ability to switch more often — and thus not have to help as often on shooters — with four quick, similarly-sized defenders.
As a result, the Pelicans — an offense-heavy outfit last season and a defense-dependent one to start the season — might have found the sort of balance Gentry has pined for throughout his tenure: Since making the switch to small-ball on Monday, New Orleans has the league’s 12th-best offensive rating and fourth-best defensive rating, according to NBA.com/Stats.
“When we play small,” Davis said, “it gives us an advantage on both ends of the floor.”
The Pelicans’ new approach, like their postseason bid, is still a work in progress. Davis said they’re still learning and testing it out. Hill worried that teams might start throwing more pick-and-roll at them to exploit their smaller players in the post. Hill and Cunningham also combined for three total rebounds, putting a heavy onus on Davis, who responded in this one by pulling down nearly half of his team’s total boards.
That, plus some early season scars yet to heal, has led to a heavy dose of caution from the Pelicans’ locker room.
“When Jrue [Holiday] came back we won four straight, [so] you could have said that about that unit,” Hill said. “We didn’t keep it going. We just want to win games. If we have to match up with another team and go big again, I’m pretty sure we could do that.”
But it also has allowed a team now 1.5 games removed from eighth place in a top-heavy Western Conference to slowly start thinking a little bigger.
“We don’t want to just be in the playoffs,” Hill said. “We want to get there and try to get home-field advantage.”