The list of guys who couldn’t play Tuesday night for the Pelicans is very nearly a list of every established and half-decent player on the roster. This was a nationally televised game against the surging Rockets, and the lineups foretold an ugly, lopsided massacre:
Without looking at their roster, I’m not sure I could name another five guys on the team without someone doing some pretty good Charades-style pantomiming somewhere in my line of sight. It’s Jrue Holiday, Solomon Hill, Darius Miller, and then too many guys who frankly probably should not be playing regular minutes in NBA games—your various Tim Fraziers and Wesley Johnsons, plus someone named Trevon Bluiett. That was the gang of stiffs the Pelicans dragged into Houston tonight, to face a Rockets team bolstered by the recent return to action of one Chris Paul.
The Pelicans, desperately needing someone to take on some of Anthony Davis’s shot-creating load, heaped 37 minutes of burn on Jahlil Okafor. Okafor has played 33 minutes a night over New Orleans’s last five games, since Anthony Davis went down with a finger injury. He’s had some moments—a 20-point double-double in a win over the woeful Grizzlies; a respectable 17-and-10 with six blocks in a loss to the Pistons; an ultra-efficient 24-and-15 in a loss to the Spurs—but certainly nothing to suggest he could lead a deeply depleted Pelicans squad to a road victory over a by-God playoff team. And yet!
Okafor was a goddamn sensation! The Rockets like to switch screens, which means they often had P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon and James Harden cross-matched onto Okafor. Those guys might be capable of defending adequately in the post against most switches, but Okafor is a genuinely humongous guy with a genuinely smooth and versatile post game. Time and again he found himself guarded by much smaller guys, and responded by calmly pointing his butt toward the basket and going to work. He beat Harden with a quick spin to the baseline; he backed Austin Rivers down, drew help, and fired a pass over the top to a cutting teammate; he shoved Tucker under the basket and rose up over him for a soft righty finish. When he wasn’t posting up or screening up high he worked his way to the dunker spot, where he finished a couple dump-offs and alley-oops. In all he made 11 of 15 shots and put up 27 points and 12 rebounds, and finished a healthy plus-8.
My favorite Okafor highlight from the game came in the second quarter (1:25 in the video), with the Pelicans down 13. It wasn’t a huge dunk—he had one of those, too, on the good kind of fast-break, and it ruled—but it’s more representative of who Okafor is and the kind of stuff he does really well. Here he had the ball at the elbow, where he executed a quick handoff with Frank Jackson, sprinting toward the top of the key. Houston’s defense was sloppy on the exchange—Faried seemed to want to switch, but Gordon sprinted over Okafor as if to trail Jackson, leaving Okafor a lane to the cup—and Jackson found Okafor on the roll, but the pass was wild and led Okafor down to the baseline, where he caught the ball flatfooted and with Tucker between him and the basket. This play, at that moment, screamed charge or goofy floater or disheartening reset.
But Okafor didn’t panic or retreat, because he’s been a comfortable and occasionally dominant low-block scorer for most of his basketball career. He gathered the ball, observed that he was the biggest man on the court, and coolly pivoted into a strong drive to the middle of the paint, where he dropped in a slick little righty finish over Tucker, who had absolutely no hope of presenting a meaningful obstacle. It’s not a big explosive highlight, but all the time across the NBA good offensive actions are short-circuited by smart passes that miss their target by only a few feet. That’s a neat thing about a comfortable operator like Okafor—he generally isn’t looking for a pinpoint lob or a pocket pass to lead him to a soaring finish. He wants the ball on the damn block. Jackson’s pass got him there, and he was perfectly comfortable doing the rest.
You’ve been sitting there thinking about the dunk the whole time, haven’t you. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. FINE. Here it is:
The Pelicans benefited from inspired efforts from Tim Frazier, who dished 10 assists in 20 minutes off the bench; Ian Clark, who put up a tidy 15 points in 18 minutes; and someone named Kenrich Williams, who does not have a photo in ESPN’s player database, but nonetheless ripped down a game-high 16 rebounds off the bench. But only Okafor had the insane and mostly impossible job of replacing Anthony Davis, and his interior dominance anchored New Orleans’s offense for whole important stretches of an improbable road win.
Okafor profiles as a guy whose skillset sits on the brink of obsolescence in the modern NBA, with the game emphasizing ball and player movement, perimeter skills, and defensive versatility. Who knows how much of his recent run of success will stick. The league is even more perimeter oriented than it was when he bombed out of Philadelphia, and is becoming more so every season. Okafor has played five solid games for the Pelicans, a team that will very soon have a completely different makeup. I wouldn’t bother hoping that Okafor can step in and put up Davis-like numbers and performances in that gloomy future, but Tuesday night he sure kicked the ass of the Rockets. Kicked it all over the damn place.