CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Orlando Johnson arrived in Charlotte from Austin, Texas, around midnight ET. He went through his first shootaround with the New Orleans Pelicans at 11 a.m. His first 10-day contract became official at 2:30 p.m., and his new coach announced that he would start at shooting guard around 5:30 p.m. ET, the first start of his NBA career.
“Thrown right into it, man,” the fourth-year pro said pregame.
This is where the Pelicans find themselves with 19 games left in a star-crossed 2015-16 campaign. Injuries have forced four starters (Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Quincy Pondexter and Bryce Dejean-Jones) out for the rest of the season, and sent two more players (Norris Cole and Alexis Ajinca) to the sideline for Tuesday’s game. All told, the Pelicans have accumulated 192 games lost because of injury (198 including illnesses and personal absences) and come up with a league-high 30 different starting lineups. Johnson was signed after an injury hardship exception was granted by the NBA.
Coach Alvin Gentry has told reporters he’s "never seen anything like this in his 27 years in the league" so many times already that it might as well become the team’s slogan.
When asked before the game if Johnson’s addition gave the Pelicans 10 healthy bodies, Gentry feigned as if he couldn’t keep track. “Uh ... yeah,” he said.
Not even some of the best work done all season by Anthony Davis, emperor of lobs, could prop up a roster stripped down to its nuts and bolts. Not even that plus a monster night from Holiday, fully healthy and playing perhaps the best ball of his career, could push the Pelicans over the top.
Davis finished with 40 points (14-for-26), 13 rebounds and five assists, marking the seventh time in the past three seasons the wunderkind has reached 40 points and 10 rebounds, tied with Kevin Durant for most in the NBA.
Holiday finished with a career-high 38 points (13-for-23; 5-for-9 from 3), six assists and four rebounds.
It still wasn't enough.
“It started with us in the beginning, in the first half when they hit [eight of their first 11] 3s,” Davis said. “We can’t allow ourselves to get in a hole like that because now when we make our runs, it’s to catch up instead of keeping it close and then making a run to take a lead. They made shots and they played well and shot the ball well from 3, and down the stretch we didn’t hit shots.”
With the Pelicans starting Johnson and the slow-footed Omer Asik, the Hornets’ 3-happy small-ball lineup poured it on at the start. Charlotte scored 39 points in the first quarter and pushed it up to 71 at half while shooting 58.8 percent from 3.
New Orleans, like it has of late, didn’t pack it in. Using a small-ball lineup of its own (swapping Toney Douglas for Johnson and small forward Alonzo Gee for Asik), the Pelicans surged for 21 points in under seven minutes to cut the deficit to five.
“I think defensively it kind of fuels us when we get stops like that and then offensively we have guys that run,” Holiday said. “One through 5, we just run. Alonzo to Dante to AD and Toney. Everybody kind of plays a faster pace.”
But Gentry would eventually have to go to his bench, and ultimately there wouldn’t be enough there to keep pace in a track meet. Outside of Davis, Holiday and Douglas (16 points off the bench), the Pelicans’ supporting cast scored just 19 points on 32 percent shooting.
Ryan Anderson, usually a flamethrower off the bench, shot just 0-for-8 for three points, tying a season low. Luke Babbitt, questionable before the game with a left shin contusion, was available to play but couldn’t get on the floor.
Asik played but lasted just six minutes, tied for his second-fewest this season. Gentry said afterward that Asik’s lack of court time was matchup-related; he liked how Kendrick Perkins, who logged 14 minutes, was playing burly center Al Jefferson. Gentry subbed Asik in with 7:26 to play and the game within six, but subbed him out 11 seconds later after Asik committed a foul on Jeremy Lin and the Hornets swapped out Jefferson for a wing.
“It’s unfair because, first of all, we play him against a guy that’s a small forward or whatever to start the game. And then we put him back in and they take Al Jefferson out, so we have to take him back out,” Gentry said. “I thought he was fine. When he was in there he was fine. It’s unfair for us to have him try to go at [Cody] Zeller or guys like that.”
In the end, Johnson’s Pelicans debut was a forgettable one. After a whirlwind 24 hours, the 26-year-old finished with five points on 2-for-7 shooting, three rebounds and a game-low minus-20.
He was also observed after the game getting his teeth checked out by a Hornets attendant.
Welcome to the Pelicans.