Pelicans hang on to beat Clippers 98-96

Apparently, there’s strength in a lack of numbers. And size.

The New Orleans Pelicans, with three backcourt players missing because of injuries or illness, found a way to turn that into advantage in a surprising 98-96 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center.

It was the fourth win in a row for the Pelicans (31-40), each coming against teams in playoff position. The Clippers (50-22), who lead the Pacific Division and are in the third playoff spot in the Western Conference, came into the game having won 13 of their past 14. They had beaten the Pelicans each of the three previous times the teams met.

“Not only did we beat a good team,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said, “we beat a team that’s got a chance to win a title.”

With starting point guard Brian Roberts and shooting guard Eric Gordon out with knee injuries, and backup guard Austin Rivers out ill, a makeshift backcourt with guard/forward Tyreke Evans, seldom-used forward Darius Miller, and off-the-bench 3-point shooter Anthony Morrow stepped up big.

Using their height advantage over the backcourt of Chris Paul, 6 feet, and Darren Collison, 6-1, the trio caused problems for the speedy Clippers defensively and controlled the tempo of the game to a slow-down pace.

“It was just Coach (Monty Williams) trusting us to post-up guys,” said Morrow, 6-5, who led the Pelicans with 27 points. “I got a couple of them, Darius got a couple of them, and we were converting on them.

“(The Clippers) are so fast. We had to do something to impose our will offensively, and Coach saw it early. We were really aggressive with it. Nobody was backing down from the challenge.”

Miller, who averages just 11 minutes per game, played 28 minutes and scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including nine points in the fourth quarter. He even filled in behind Evans as the backup point guard.

He curled off a screen by Alexi Ajinca and sank a big 3-pointer with 2:44 left that gave the Pelicans a 95-90 lead, then came off another screen and rose over Collison for a basket that gave the Pelicans a 97-94 lead with 46.8 seconds left.

After Clippers center DeAndre Jordan’s put-back brought the Clippers to 97-94, power forward Blake Griffin drove for a basket with 10.5 seconds and was fouled by Evans. However, Griffin missed the free throw. Anthony Davis aggressively grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Griffin.

Davis, however, made just the first free throw, giving the Clippers one last opportunity with 9.4 seconds left. However guard Jamal Crawford, who had tormented the Pelicans with 7-of-15 3-point shooting, missed off the right side of the rim with Miller guarding him.

“We didn’t execute the play, but the game didn’t come down to the final play,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I really thought they deserved to win. They played hard and with focus for 48 minutes.”

The Clippers’ loss saw All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, bothered by the Pelicans’ height on the perimeter and also at the rim with Davis and Ajinca, shoot 0-of-12. It is the worst in Clippers history and the worst 0-for night by a Pelicans opponent in franchise history.

For the second time in three games, New Orleans played under control against a big-time opponent, keeping things close and winning at the end. The largest lead in the game was eight points.

The Pelicans came back from a 13-8 first-quarter deficit to lead 29-27 when it ended behind 11 points by Morrow. New Orleans survived 8-of-15 3-point shooting by the Clippers in the second quarter to lead 55-52 on the strength a 25-15 rebounding advantage, a 34-18 advantage on points in the paint and 13-5 in second chance points.

After a defensive third quarter, the Pelicans clung to a 76-75 lead entering the fourth.

Ajinca scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 27 minutes 35 seconds. Evans scored just 10 points, but was a force with his drives and had nine assists. Al-Farouq Aminu had eight points, 10 rebounds and a career-high tying six assists along with solid defense.