NEW ORLEANS — Holding Cleveland to 86 points in a blowout win Wednesday night was one thing. But the Nets are stepping into the lion’s den Friday night against the Pelicans, who have stamped themselves as a legitimate challenger to champion Golden State in the Western Conference.
The Pelicans are 3-0 and feature a frontcourt that includes All-Star center Anthony Davis, who is averaging 30.3 points and 13.0 rebounds; stretch power forward Nikola Mirotic, who is bombing away for 28.0 points per game, and forward Julius Randle, who is averaging 18.7 points off the bench. They have three other players averaging double figures, including Jrue Holiday, who is a member of the NBA all-defensive team.
It’s a big step up. “That’s what I told the guys today,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after a practice in Cleveland. “We’ve got the ultimate defensive challenge. Can we have another really good defensive performance against a great offensive team?
“They’re a little different. Mirotic changes the equation. When you have a four like that, it stretches you out and then obviously a superstar [Davis]. We have to have the right balance with helping on Davis, but not too much where they’re just firing away threes.”
No one will be under more scrutiny than second-year center Jarrett Allen, who has shown signs of becoming a defensive force. Challenged by Atkinson to improve his rebounding and shot-blocking, Allen has lifted his rebounding average from 5.4 to 8.0 and his blocked shots from 1.2 to 2.5. His scoring is up from 8.2 points to 12.5. But he knows Davis is in a league of his own.
“I would say he’s not as big and bulky as everybody, but in terms of skill, he’s amazing at what he does,” Allen said. “It’s just more being able to stop his skill rather than brute force.”
Defending Davis is complicated because Mirotic is shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range and spreading the floor.
“They run almost everything through [Davis] and Mirotic,” Allen said. “Davis is really the focal point. It’s not like I’m helping off of my guy. I’m definitely going to have to play him one-on-one. We already ran through his plays about how to stop what he does. I’ll be ready for that.”
It doesn’t always show up in the boxscore, but Allen has the potential to be one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA. He altered a bunch of Cavaliers shots and helped to limit the Cavs to 38.1 percent shooting.
“His rim protection is such an elite skill in today’s game with the lane open and more rim attempts than ever this year,” Atkinson said. “[Cavs coach] Tyronn Lue said in the paper that Jarrett’s rim protection gave them problems. That’s the reason we drafted him. He’s doing his job.”