Heading into back-to-back road games Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New Orleans Pelicans have won their past two games.
Guard Eric Gordon gained notice for driving for the winning shot in Friday’s victory at Detroit, and Anthony Davis’ 22-point, 19-rebound, seven-block performance in the win over Orlando on Sunday night was all the rage.
But quietly, point guard Brian Roberts played a big part in both victories. He scored 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting against Detroit and turned the ball over just once. Against Orlando, he scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting. And although he had four turnovers, three came in the first quarter. He didn’t have any in the fourth with the game on the line.
“I think the best thing is that I’ve gotten off to good starts,” Roberts said Monday. “My first quarters have been pretty good, and I just want to jump on ’em. And I think I’ve been doing that.”
When starting point guard Jrue Holiday, an All-Star last season, learned he had a fractured right tibia Jan. 8, that thrust Roberts into the starting lineup. His first two games were no gems but, during the next seven, he averaged 13.4 points on 56.4 percent shooting, including 47.6 percent on 3-pointers in 30 minutes per game.
He has averaged 3.7 assists, but he has kept turnovers down. The reworked offense features a lot of ball movement, which keeps teammates involved and sets up Roberts for shots, his strength. And the offense appears much more in sync than it was his first few games. The Pelicans have won three of their past four games.
Roberts had just two assists against Orlando, but his shot-making set up Anthony Davis for a powerful dunk in the game’s final minute that took away any remaining fight the Magic had.
“(Roberts) has been steady for us,” coach Monty Williams said. “The Memphis (win Jan. 20) was an indicator of how well he can play when he’s knocking down shots and finding guys. And his defense was really good against (Grizzlies point guard Mike) Conley, getting over pick and rolls. But he’s been steady for us, and we need that every night.”
One of the keys to the Pelicans’ win against Orlando was that they limited the damage the Magic did spreading the court and driving, and with the pick-and-roll.
Against Cleveland, that again will be a must. Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving was named a starter for next month’s All-Star Game at the New Orleans Arena. He is a headache with his drives to the basket, and he shoots well from the outside. That’s why he is particularly effective in the pick-and-roll.
Roberts knows he faces a supreme challenge.
“I haven’t guarded him much, but he’s a heck of a talent,” Roberts said. “I just want to make it hard for him on offense, attack him on defense and try to limit his easy shots.”
The Pelicans beat the visiting Cavaliers 104-100 in the teams’ first meeting Nov. 22. Cleveland led 93-81 with 4:43 remaining before the Pelicans surged.
“We just didn’t give in,” Williams said. “We got some stops (late), certainly made a bunch of shots, and we got to the free-throw line, which enabled us to set our defense.”
Things are different now. Because of injuries, Pelicans reserves — such as Roberts, guard Austin Rivers and rookie center Jeff Withey — have seen their minutes increase.
The Cavaliers are a bit different, too, after acquiring forward Luol Deng in a trade with Chicago on Jan. 7. But the Cavs, who have lost three of four, showed in their most recent game Sunday against Phoenix that they still have a penchant for blowing leads.
Playing at home, the Cavaliers led 61-43 at halftime. But the Suns sank five consecutive 3-pointers to start the third quarter and outscored the Cavaliers 25-6 in the quarter. They build an 11-point lead in the fourth on their way to a 99-90 win.
Against Minnesota, Roberts’ challenge will be a bit different facing Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who runs an offense that leads the NBA in points in the paint. Rubio also leads the league in steals at 2.67 per game.
In the teams’ previous meeting, on Jan. 1. in Minneapolis, the Wolves went on a 19-2 run to take an 87-57 lead on their way to a 124-112 win.