AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — It would have been easy for this team to cede defeat down 16 points in the third quarter.
After all, the Pelicans were missing one of its leading scorers (forward Ryan Anderson), its starting point guard (Jrue Holiday), its starting center (Jason Smith) and its sixth man (Tyreke Evans) while in the midst of being outscored 32-17 in the third quarter.
But on the road and relying on players it normally wouldn’t, New Orleans kept chipping away. It regained the lead with a little more than a minute left in the fourth quarter on a tip-in from Anthony Davis, then two free throws from Anthony Morrow gave the Pelicans a three-point lead. Pistons forward Josh Smith tied the game at 101, giving New Orleans a shot at the win. Guard Eric Gordon, who had seven turnovers on the night, redeemed himself with a driving, spinning layup that gave New Orleans a 103-101 victory.
The Pelicans won for the second time in three games after enduring an eight-game losing streak earlier in January, and the first time they’ve swept the Pistons in back-to-back seasons since 1995.
“He wasn’t having his best night, at all, but he’s Eric,” said guard Austin Rivers. “We trust him. That’s what he does and what he gets paid to do, and he does it well. If the game is on the line and Eric has the ball, we feel like we have a great chance of winning. He went out there and made a big shot for us. That was a great win for us, we just have to figure out a way to take this and build from it.”
The first look at what this Pelicans team has the potential to be came in the second quarter, when forward Anthony Davis checked back into the game after going scoreless in the first.
Quickly, he scored his first points on a jumper. His second basket came shortly after, as did his first assist, on a 3-pointer by guard Anthony Morrow. This streak was part of a four-minute stretch where the Pelicans scored 13 unanswered points in a row and briefly regained the lead.
Forget the injuries and inconsistencies that have plagued this season thus far — these four minutes were what this New Orleans team has the potential to be.
At halftime, New Orleans had 10 turnovers and still led by six. Almost half — 21 of 54 — of the team’s points had come from the bench, even without sixth man Tyreke Evans, who was held out because of an illness. In his place, guard Austin Rivers had nine points, and every Pelican that saw the court in the first half scored.
It all seemed to be coming off the rails in the third quarter, though, when the Pistons outscored the Pelicans 32-17 in the third quarter. Detroit led by as many as 16 points at one point in the quarter, while Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings outscored New Orleans by himself, tallying 18 points in the third quarter alone.
But in the fourth quarter, New Orleans relied on big 3-pointers while weathering the Pistons’ relentless inside attack. The Pistons’ starting center, Andre Drummond, scored 21 to go along with his 20 rebounds, but the Pelicans continued to reel in big 3-pointers. Morrow — one of those players stepping up in place of injured starters — finished with a team-high 21 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting.
Even with a season-high 21 turnovers, even with Evans out with an illness, even with a 16-point deficit, the Pelicans never stopped clawing.
None of that mattered — the game was never over for this young team.
“It was an ugly game, for sure, but it’s just a good experience to get a win like that with a young group,” Gordon said. “We just have to build off this.”