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Small-ball lineup could be the big lift the Pelicans need

NEW ORLEANS -- The Pelicans entered Monday night caught in basketball purgatory. Any team 10 games under .500 by Christmas day, the NBA's unofficial start date for the casual fan, has usually cemented an unfortunate fate. But with the bottom of the Western Conference amounting to an eight-team pileup, the Pelicans came out of a two-day holiday break almost as close to a playoff spot as they were to last place.

"We're trying to get into a situation where you get into the playoffs," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "And that opportunity is still there, even with the record that we have right now, which everybody -- the coaches, management, everybody -- is disappointed that's where we are right now. But we still have a goal that's very obtainable if we lock in and play and continue to improve as a team."

Their improved outlook of late has provided at least an extension on their expiration date as playoff contenders and seemingly intensified the pressure on the Pelicans' brass to make it back to the postseason, with Gentry and other key figures openly calling this five-game home stretch to close out the calendar year a defining portion of their season. But it also might be the perfect confluence of circumstances to breed invention.

Gentry officially took the shackles off his starting lineup in preseason, saying, to the delight of the internet, that he was open to beginning games with Anthony Davis -- a college center turned power forward in the NBA who has even moonlighted as a giant wing under Gentry -- as a small-ball center.

The Pelicans had turned to their wunderkind in the middle to start with three times before Monday's matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, to mixed results. But with Dirk Nowitzki at center and the Mavs getting smaller from there, the Pelicans committed to ditching a traditional 5-man for the first time with a healthy roster, opening with a frontcourt of Davis next to their two active small forwards, Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham.

The results were the first signs of hope for a franchise with nearly twice as many losses as wins in the month of December: New Orleans shot 52.9 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3 and outlasted the Mavericks 111-104, earning consecutive wins for the first time since a four-game streak in late November.

"Obviously, I think our game plan is to try to get out and run either way, but with Anthony out there, the difference is, at the 5, nobody can guard him," said Jrue Holiday, who started in the backcourt with Buddy Hield. "They can't guard him at 4. At the 5, it's definitely a lot tougher."

Gentry was far from ready to commit to the approach full time, but he did say there is a "good possibility" the Pelicans will play the same way over the "next couple games."

"We thought about that lineup because we think it's a good lineup that gives us an opportunity to have a little versatility," Gentry said. "And then defensively, I think it allows us to have a situation where we can do certain things that we weren't able to do with two big guys out there. Obviously, AD is agile enough and moves his feet well enough that we can put him in a situation where he can guard guards also."

New Orleans had played Monday's first unit a total of three minutes entering the game. But the results, in 11 total minutes together, were encouraging: 118 offensive rating and a 90 defensive rating, for a plus-28 net rating, per NBA.com/Stats.

The Pelicans also fared well in the eight minutes they played in a similar look, with a red-hot Langston Galloway (5-for-5 from 3) in for Hield (2-for-4): 147.1 offensive rating, 116 defensive rating for a plus-31.1 net rating, per NBA.com/Stats.

Neither Omer Asik nor Alexis Ajinca, the Pelicans' two usual centers, logged a minute against the Mavs.

"I think the energy level that [the first unit] had and what they did was great," Gentry said.

Davis said the Pelicans' improved shooting, one game after hitting on just 37 percent of their shots from the floor in a win over the Miami Heat, can't be attributed to the new look. But the freedom to switch positions 1 through 4 on defense allowed them more flexibility in handling the Mavericks' smaller approach, especially when Nowitzki was on the floor for 17 minutes in the first half.

"I really like that lineup," Davis said. "We were able to do a lot of things offensively and defensively."

Hill has spoken in the past to the Pelicans' inability to establish their own identity, as they often allow the opposition to dictate how they play. With Davis at the 5, though, Hill thinks the Pelicans might be able to force teams to adjust to them for a change.

"I've been in a scenario before where we had a guy that we wanted to protect at the 5, but also, that's the guy [the defense] had to worry about," Hill said. "I think more teams would dictate based on how we would play than when we play against other teams."