The New Orleans Pelicans said Wednesday night’s back-and-forth win against the Utah Jazz brought them together as a team, especially defensively.
“I feel like we trust each other better on defense now,” center Jason Smith said.
The Pelicans (5-6) likely will need a good defensive scheme at 7 p.m. Friday when the Cleveland Cavaliers visit the New Orleans Arena. Although the Cavaliers are just 4-8, they can cause problems for any team. That starts with third-year point guard Kyrie Irving, an Eastern Conference All-Star last season who is difficult to guard because of his quickness, ball-handling ability and shooting range.
“He is a complete package as a point guard,” said Pelicans backup point guard Austin Rivers, who like Irving played one year at Duke before going to the NBA.
It could be the first major test of the season for Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, acquired in June in large part because of his tenacious one-on-one defense. But Holiday has had his share of struggles with the pick-and-roll, most notably against Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Irving runs it extremely well and has teammates around him — shooting guard Dion Waiters and forward Tristan Thompson — who are adept at scoring off it.
“Pick-and-roll is a big issue with Kyrie Irving; that’s his favorite play,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Sometimes he commands a triple team with the attention that he draws. And he’s one of the few guys who can play with both hands and finish with both hands. He’s big and strong and has great command of the ball.”
Excellent team defense will be needed. But guarding Irving, who’s 6-foot-3 and 193 pounds, one-on-one is no less a nightmare. New Orleans fans saw that last season during a game in February when he scored 20 of his 35 points during the final 6 minutes, 45 seconds, leading Cleveland to a 105-100 victory. But the Pelicans feel Holiday, also an Eastern Conference All-Star for the first time last season, is capable.
“Nobody can really stop (Irving) off the dribble,” Williams said. “But Jrue is one of the guys who probably, if not the best, is one of the best at guarding the ball, so I’m sure he’s going to take the challenge.”
That should make for an interesting game within the game as the Pelicans look to sweep their three-game homestand before facing back-to-back tough games at San Antonio on Monday and at home vs. Golden State on Tuesday.
“It would be really good to go into those games with a three-game winning streak, especially after what took place on the road last week,” Smith said of losses at Phoenix, the Lakers and Utah.
“I think to finish out with a win at home would keep the momentum building.”
In Wednesday’s win 105-98 against Utah, the Pelicans showed more defensive schemes that could help them against Irving, who is averaging 21.8 points and 9.4 assists. The Pelicans used full-court presses, including a trap, that sometimes threw the Jazz off-kilter.
The Cavaliers are back under former coach Mike Brown, like Williams a disciple of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and a defensive-minded coach. But while Cleveland averages 92.5 points, it is allowing 99.5.
The bench could be the difference. Veteran point guard Jarrett Jack can more than pick up the slack when Irving is not in the game, and he can pair with him at times for the type of lethal ball-handling duo that has given the Pelicans problems this season. And center Anderson Varajao, who missed last season while injured, is a very active player.
In the past two games, the Pelicans bench, with 3-point ace Ryan Anderson back from a toe injury, has given the team a boost. The group scored 71 points in a 37-point victory against Philadelphia on Saturday, then had 45 points, including five 3-pointers and 17 of New Orleans’ 44 rebounds, in the win against Utah. Another dominant performance may be needed to offset Irving et al.
“Hopefully our first unit can throw the first punch, so when we get in, we can just keep it going or try and push the tempo and feed off of that,” guard Tyreke Evans said. “If not, we have to come in and pick up the energy and give Ryan a couple of good looks (at the basket) and do whatever it takes to get us going.”