Pelicans play their best Gentry Ball even as injuries mount

NEW ORLEANS -- Jrue Holiday doesn’t know how to explain it. The New Orleans Pelicans point guard has been with the team for three seasons, and each has brought with it a new list of names relegated to suits and the sidelines.

“It does seem like everywhere we turn, somebody’s going down,” Holiday said.

The Pelicans lost another player on Thursday. About two hours before tipoff of one of their two final national TV matchups, it was announced that Bryce Dejean-Jones, less than a week after signing his first long-term NBA contract, would have surgery to fix a broken right wrist.

But as the shooters spotting up around the arc cycle around him, Holiday says he keeps the same approach he has used in other injury-riddled campaigns: “I just really try to pass it to the open man.”

There were plenty of those to go around against a ragged Oklahoma City Thunder defense coming off the first half of a back-to-back in Dallas. Russell Westbrook had 44 points and Kevin Durant had 32, but New Orleans got offense from all corners of its 10-man roster -- including 12 points from Toney Douglas and 10 points from Dante Cunningham -- to outlast the Thunder 123-119 at the Smoothie King Center.

Four Pelicans players scored over 20 points -- Anthony Davis (30 points), Ryan Anderson (26), Holiday (22) and Norris Cole (21) -- and the team as a whole dished out 29 assists. By the fourth quarter, even Kendrick Perkins, resurrected from the bench after the loss of Omer Asik, was kicking it out to the corner for open 3-pointers.

“I think the great thing about our team is, in practice Coach switches up the lineups so many times so when we’re out there, stuff like this happens. We’re not naked to it,” said Davis, who also added six rebounds and four blocks. “I just have to continue to be aggressive. Other guys want to play off me. They’ve been playing well. But it doesn’t matter who’s on the floor.”

Davis himself even went down for a moment. A collision at the hoop with 3 minutes, 19 seconds to play in the fourth quarter caused the Pelicans big man to clutch his left knee as he sat on the floor.

“What else could go wrong?” coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “Obviously he’s really, really important. Anytime we see him down on the floor, we’re concerned.”

Davis wouldn’t miss a play, even corralling a missed Westbrook 3-point attempt to finish off the Pelicans’ third win in four games since the All-Star break.

“I think we thrive off of our defense,” Anderson said. “When we make stops, when we’re in transition and move the ball, I think that’s where we can use our speed to our advantage. Obviously getting into a lot of pick-and-rolls and drags -- that’s Coach’s offense, that’s something we need to be consistent about because it forces the defense to work and also we can move the ball, rather than strictly going into the post or waiting for double-teams. We’re really moving the ball and making them work. It slows [the other team] down, too.

“Games like tonight, we played great defense but we also played the Alvin Gentry offense like we want to.”

That would the same offense with strong roots in what both Gentry and Mike D’Antoni ran to great success with the Phoenix Suns. D’Antoni, in particular, was hailed for his ability to turn overlooked players into key performers. Boris Diaw. Raja Bell. James Jones. Jared Dudley. Channing Frye. Some had their moments elsewhere, but they all reached their peaks playing in the 3-happy “Seven Second or Less” system.

With teams like the Warriors turning 3-and-D wings into the most sought-after commodities, finding similar hidden gems to fit the approach has become far more difficult. But the versatility and flexibility of Gentry Ball certainly makes it a bit easier to paper over losses, as long as they don’t include Davis.

“I think we can just plug guys in,” Gentry said. “We go over everything in practice. Really the 2-3 position is interchangeable, and the 4-5 position is interchangeable. A lot of it is we just have to stick somebody in there and let them play.”

After a disappointing loss to the Wizards in the encore to Davis’ 59-point, 20-rebound explosion, that simple solution was all the Pelicans needed.

“Been some ups, been some downs. Some wins, some losses. Another day in the NBA,” Davis said with a smirk reminiscent of his head coach's. “That’s all it is.”