Just when their season seemed to be spiraling downward, the New Orleans Pelicans have begun to figure out life after DeMarcus Cousins.
Wednesday night's post-Mardi Gras home game against the Los Angeles Lakers will be a test of their newfound confidence.
The Pelicans (30-26), clinging to half-game lead over the L.A. Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, are coming off back-to-back road victories over the Brooklyn Nets and the Detroit Pistons, giving them a 3-5 record since Cousins was lost for the season Jan. 26 with a torn left Achilles tendon.
In dispatching Detroit 118-103 on Monday night, the Pelicans got excellent contributions from their new "big three" -- forward Anthony Davis (38 points and 10 rebounds), forward Nikola Mirotic (21 points and 12 rebounds off the bench) and guard Jrue Holiday (21 and 12).
Just as importantly, the offense that looked so stilted in losing five of six games without Cousins caught fire, with 31 assists on 44 made field goals.
"It just takes a little while because (Cousins) was such a big part of everything that we did," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. "We have guys who are adjusting to new roles, really. You just can't do that in one or two games. I think we're doing a good job of figuring things out now. The last two games we've played real solid basketball."
Mirotic has been more than a perimeter shooter since being acquired from the Chicago Bulls after the Cousins injury. He has attacked the boards and won Davis' admiration for playing tough one-on-defense against Detroit forward Blake Griffin, fronting him effectively and forcing him into several bad shots.
"(Mirotic is) shooting well, rebounding extremely well, passing, playing great defense," said Davis, who has scored 82 points himself in the last two games. "He's helping us a lot."
Mirotic entered the Pistons' game off a 21-point, 16-rebound effort in a double-overtime victory over the Nets, but he was especially happy about his defense.
"I know it is an important area where I can improve," Mirotic said. "I did a very good job this summer putting some more pounds on my body because I knew I had to be better. It's all effort. I know they are stronger than I, most of the time faster, but if you put in good energy, when you really want to do something, it's easier."
Despite losing 130-123 at Dallas on Saturday, the Lakers (23-32) are playing much better basketball. They had won four straight coming into that game, and newly acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas came off the bench Saturday in his Lakers' debut and scored 22 points and had six assists in 31 minutes.
Thomas is working his way back into shape after playing in 15 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers due to his rehabbing a hip injury for months. He went through a full-scale practice Monday, something he said he did not do in Cleveland.
"I mean, this is the first real practice I had all year," Thomas said. "Let's see how my hip responds with the soreness and things like that, but I'm here. I'm here and I'm happy. Got my joy back and I'm ready to put on a show for the Lakers."
Lakers coach Luke Walton said Tuesday rookie guard Lonzo Ball went through his first practice since spraining the MCL in his left knee, but he probably will not return to the lineup until after the All-Star break. Ball has missed the last 13 games.
Walton said Ball still is experiencing "a little discomfort," but he said it is not a "setback" in his recovery.
With a healthy Cousins recording 22 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, the Pelicans defeated the Lakers 119-112 in Los Angeles on Oct. 22.
Copyright © 2018 TTWN Media Networks LLC Photo: Getty Images