NEW ORLEANS — In a season of serial injuries, not even New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams experienced a challenge close to this.
Facing the Los Angeles Clippers, winners of 13 of their last 14 games and sporting the NBA’s fourth-best record, the Pelicans had only nine players available to suit up, including just two true guards.
That is why it was so shocking that the Pelicans gutted out a 98-96 victory over the Clippers on Wednesday night.
Darius Miller, a 6-foot-8 reserve forward, who has seen minimal playing time this season, had to play point guard for the first time since kindergarten — and he had to do it against All-Star Chris Paul.
Reserve shooting guard Anthony Morrow scored 20 of his season-high 27 points in the first half and Miller, playing emergency point guard, hit five of his career-high 16 points in the final 2:46 to lift the Pelicans to the improbable win at the Smoothie King Center.
“It was all about competing,” said Williams, whose team (31-40) won its fourth consecutive game for the first time this season, all against teams headed to the playoffs. “It was like the M.A.S.H. unit over there. We brought the guys together and talked about just competing at a high level.”
The Clippers (50-22) got a historically bad game from Paul. The former New Orleans Hornet missed all 12 shots from the floor — his most misses ever without a made field goal. Even though the Clippers made 13 3-pointers — reserve guard Jamal Crawford led all scorers with 31 points, which included 7 of 15 from behind the arc — they could not put away the no-name Pelicans.
“I think sometime the basketball gods punish you for messing around, and I thought that’s what we did,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “(The Pelicans) kept playing hard. It felt like we saw all their guys out — no point guards on the floor — and that’s how we played. The team that plays the hardest for 48 minutes should win, and I thought they deserved the win.”
Forward Anthony Davis had 16 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks, and he hit one of two free throws with 9.4 seconds left to give the Pelicans their 98-96 lead. Miller hit two big jumpers — one a 3-pointer — down the stretch in a 7-of-9 shooting performance.
But Miller might have been happiest about his one turnover against the Clippers’ pressure defense, which tried to trap him because he was in such unfamiliar territory initiating the offense.
“It’s been a long, long, long, long time,” Miller said, trying to remember the last time he played the point. “It was definitely fun. It’s always fun when you come up against a new challenge. I just wanted to come out and compete.”
Morrow said Miller told him before the game that it was his first time playing point guard “since kindergarten.”
“That was huge,” Morrow said. “We tried to do it by committee. He stepped up. He had Chris Paul on him — a great defender — and he found a way to get the ball down the court and get us in the offense. He works on his craft. We always say, ‘7 a.m.’ because we’re the first two guys in the gym.”
The Clippers still had a chance to either win or tie the game on the final possession with 8.8 seconds left, trailing 98-96. But Crawford missed a 25-footer at the buzzer after Paul first drove to the basket and fed him the ball out top.
“You can win a game when one of your best players doesn’t play well,” Rivers said. “The only thing I told Chris is, ‘Just because you’re not playing well, that’s fine. We’ll live with that. Just keep everybody in the offense and keep the movement.’ I thought he started pressing a little bit. He was trying to get going, which you want him to do, but just keep doing it in the realm of the offense.”
“From here on out it’s just about winning,” Paul said. “If I go 0-for-15 or 0-for-20 and we win, I could care less. It’s more than this game. It’s about playing the right way going into the playoffs.”
NOTES: The Clippers entered the game 29-0 when they had hit at least nine 3-pointers. They hit 13 against the Pelicans and lost. … The Pelicans were down three guards against the Clippers. SG Eric Gordon (right knee tendinitis), PG Brian Roberts (bone bruise in left knee, calf strain) and reserve PG Austin Rivers (respiratory infection) all were sidelined, forcing coach Monty Williams to move Tyreke Evans to the point and start Anthony Morrow at shooting guard. … Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the Clippers’ new arrivals, Fs Glen Davis and Danny Granger, have “really fit in. They still have stuff to get, but they’re learning.” … Rivers said as the playoffs approach, he will pare down offensively and defensively, preferring to use things that have worked the best during the regular season. “We already know there’s 10 things we won’t run because they don’t work or don’t work consistently enough,” he said.
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