The New Orleans Pelicans look to bounce back when they play the Sacramento Kings on Monday night at Smoothie Kings Center.
The Pelicans were on a five-game winning streak, four against teams in playoff positions. That was before Saturday night’s loss at the white-hot San Antonio Spurs, who made the Pelicans the 17th consecutive opponent they have beaten.
All-Star power forward Anthony Davis, who had left the previous game against the Utah Jazz with a left-ankle injury, did not play against the Spurs. Davis had an MRI after the Utah game and has a soft-tissue injury, Coach Monty Williams said. His status is day-to-day.
In Davis’ absence, center Alexis Ajinca started against San Antonio. Like the Pelicans, he also is looking to bounce back after scoring just two points. In the previous two games, he had 14 points and 11 rebounds against the Los Angeles Clippers then nine points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against Utah.
“When he plays with effort and force, he’s a really good NBA center,” Williams said. “And that’s his big deal right now, playing with that kind of force at the rim contesting shots, being down in his stance in his pick-and-roll coverages, and being aggressive on offense when the defense gives him something. To me, that’s how he’s got to play.”
Before San Antonio, Ajinca, 7 feet 2, had a six-game stint in which he averaged 8.8 points on 58.3 shooting and 7.7 rebounds, including 2.5 offensive, playing 20 minutes per game.
Ajinca said his being more active and effective is related to his role coming off the bench. Previously, he and Greg Stiemsma alternated at center, with Stiemsma going against the more physical ones.
“I just feel more comfortable sometimes coming off the bench,” Ajinca said. “I guess it’s less pressure of the game. I just feel more comfortable with the second unit sometimes, and it just gives me more confidence.”
Ajinca certainly does not appear to lack confidence when it matters most. It seems the better the competition, the better he plays. In his first game as a Pelican, on Dec. 21, he grabbed 11 rebounds in 16 minutes, 42 seconds against the Portland Trail Blazers, who at the time were playing as well as any team in the NBA.
Two weeks later, he had 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting, seven rebounds — three offensive — and a block and a steal against Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers, a favorite to play in the NBA Finals this season.
Ajinca has had games of 19 points and 12 rebounds and 11 points and 10 rebounds against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers, that in addition to his performance last week against L.A.
Ajinca said he didn’t know what was behind his stepping up against good players, but he suggested it may be a matter of pride.
“Maybe, it’s because you have good players against you, so you’re trying to show them that you can compete with them,” he said. “Sometimes the game is big and you have more motivation. Sometimes, it’s just the way it is.”
Williams has a different take, particularly when it comes to playing against Jordan, who leads the NBA in rebounding and field goal percentage and is third in blocks.
“DeAndre’s a really good center,” Williams said. “I just think (Ajinca) really played hard. If he doesn’t play hard, he’s going to get embarrassed against D’Andre. (Ajinca) just played with a great deal of energy.”
Against the Kings, Ajinca will get his chance against DeMarcus Cousins, one of the more stilled centers in the league. The Kings hold a 2-1 lead in the series, with this being the final game.
In Ajinca’s first stint in the NBA, teams looked at his height and tried to make him a more dominant low-post player.
With the Pelicans, he has been able to play his game and contribute in the pick and roll with dives to the basket and short jumpers.
“I know I can contribute with pick-and-pops and rolls to the basket,” said Ajinca, who came to the Pelicans from Strasbourg of the French League. “It’s something I had been working on overseas, and now I can show what I can do on the court right now here.”
The Pelicans are 9-6 in March, clinching their first winning month this season. They finished with .500 records (7-7) in both November and December.