DeMarcus Cousins' big night sparks Pelicans' dimming playoff hopes

NEW ORLEANS -- After corralling a Jrue Holiday miss in a crowd of dark blue jerseys and powering through a James Ennis swipe that sent his trademark headband flying but the ball in off the glass, DeMarcus Cousins went Super Saiyan, flexing low while rearing his head back for a big roar.

On the next New Orleans Pelicans possession, Cousins received the ball on the left wing and sized up Marc Gasol before firing off a quick right-left-right dribble that left the Memphis Grizzlies center in the dust. That allowed the New Orleans big man a head of steam to finish through another late swipe for a second straight and-1.

This time, the crowd belted out chants of “Boo-gie! Boo-gie!” in providing a backing track to free throw attempts in a way that’s usually reserved for resident superstar big man Anthony Davis.

In two plays, Cousins showed the rare combination of force and skill that has fueled his rise into the upper crust of NBA big men.

And with 41 points -- the most since his trade from the Sacramento Kings during the All-Star break -- in a 95-82 win over the Grizzlies on Tuesday, Cousins unveiled the next level the Pelicans can hit in the future and, potentially, to finish out a season that suddenly has some life to it.

“It feels good to finally tear down that wall, I guess you could say. Break out of the shell,” said Cousins, who also finished with 17 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals.

“Big man came through for us,” Holiday said. “Forty-one and 17 -- that’s elite.”

The Pelicans came into the night in the midst of an offensive renaissance. A defense-first team for most of the season that scraped by on the other end, mostly via Davis’ individual brilliance, its offense has played at a top-five rate over the past five games.

But even in games in which Cousins put up his usual hefty numbers, his impact possessions could often feel like asides to the entire piece. The Pelicans surged for 123 points in a statement win on Sunday over the Minnesota Timberwolves, yet Cousins finished with 14 shot attempts, tying the fewest he has had this season during a game in which he has played at least 30 minutes.

This time, Cousins said he tried to make quicker decisions when he got the ball, and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said his team made a concerted effort to play inside out and build off the double-teams he drew. When Cousins started rolling, Davis, who battled an illness coming into the game, said he was happy to step aside and focus his attention more on the offensive boards and setting screens.

“We told him to keep going,” said Davis, who finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. “We tried to find him, keep giving him the basketball. He played unbelievable tonight. When he plays like that, we’re a tough team to beat.”

It all came together in the third quarter. The Pelicans dictated a faster tempo, with Cousins firing off a few on-the-money outlet passes to start their now-imposing transition game, sparking a 21-0 run. The Pelicans finished with 32 points on 57 percent shooting in the third quarter, two points shy of their 34-point total in the entire first half.

The Cousins-Davis pairing was second to only Davis and Holiday among two-man lineups that played over 30 minutes together in Tuesday's game, with a plus-36.4 net rating, according to NBA.com/Stats. Even more encouraging, the Cousins-Davis duo is plus-16.2 in four games over the past week, with offensive and defensive numbers akin to the Davis-Holiday combo that has largely maintained its effectiveness throughout.

“We’re getting a lot of good, open shots, and that’s to Anthony and Boogie’s [credit],” Holiday said. “We’re getting open shots. It’s just a matter of knocking them in, which we didn’t really in the first half. But second half, man, I’m telling you -- Boogie just took over.”

The big-man duo punctuated that point by once again connecting on an alley-oop for Davis, a thrilling move that has quickly become the telltale sign that their synergy is working.

Davis said most teams are still puzzled on how to guard them when he and Cousins set up for the pick-and-roll.

“So many teams are worried about whether to stay with him or switch,” Davis said. “Most of the time it’s not really a screen. I just try to get a piece of the guy and just roll to the basket real hard. He just throws it up there, and my job is to go catch it and finish it.”

Davis returning the favor may take a little more time to develop.

“He said he’s gonna work on his hops this summer,” Davis said of Cousins, a self-professed ground-bound big man. “Maybe next year.”

After winning three straight games and five of their past six -- a stretch that Gentry called their best since he arrived in the summer of 2015 -- the Pelicans might not have to wait that long to see results. New Orleans is now 3½ games back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 11 games left to play, including three against the Denver Nuggets, who currently hold the No. 8 spot.

A lot still must happen for the Pelicans to overcome its sub-1 percent odds of making the postseason, but it’s becoming harder to ignore their steady climb back into the race.

“I think by just looking at it just gives us more motivation to go out there and play,” Davis said. "Every time we’re in the huddle, I tell them it’s a must-win game for us, and then we go out there and play accordingly.

“I’m not gonna lie, we look at it every day. It’s in the arena, it’s in the facility. We talk about it. We just want to know where we are at all times.”