Alexis Ajinca’s recent form is inspiring so much confidence in the Pelicans that marquee players like Eric Gordon are looking for the 7-foot reserve with the game on the line.
Gordon twice passed to Ajinca in the final minute, and the Frenchman converted at the rim both times, giving him a career-high 24 points and lifting New Orleans to its fourth straight victory, 104-102 over the Miami Heat on Friday night.
"I was just trying to do the right play at the right time," said Ajinca, who set his previous career high of 22 last month in a victory at Toronto. "It happened I was by myself, so Eric threw a very good pass and I just made the basket."
Ajinca scored the game’s final points with 25.9 seconds left. Hassan Whiteside appeared to be going up for a tying dunk, but was blocked by fellow 7-footer Omer Asik. But after Asik secured the rebound, his hasty outlet pass went off Gordon’s hands and out of bounds.
That gave Miami one more shot, but Dwyane Wade chose to shot from 3-point range rather than look for a tying basket inside, and the shot bounced out as time expired, dropping the Heat to its first loss in three games.
"You can always look at things you would have done differently, but it’s a lot different when you are out there in the heat of competition," Spoelstra said. "I live with Dwyane Wade with the ball in his hands to make decisions at the end of games."
Gordon scored 20 points, including a clutch 3 that tied it at 98 with 2:23 left. Tyreke Evans had 19 points and 11 assists for New Orleans, but fouled on a charge with the scored tied at 100 and 1:23 left.
Whiteside’s dunk then put Miami in front for the final time.
Gordon, who became a primary ball-handler with Evans out of the game, figured Miami would focus on stopping him, and told Ajinca to be ready.
"I told him, once you dive (toward the hoop) and you’re open, I’m going to give it to you because you’ve been playing well," Gordon said. "He’s been big. He’s a problem (for opponents). He’s scoring. He’s defending. He’s working hard."
Ajinca was used to being the go-to guy when he played in Europe, but has spent his fledgling NBA career as a reserve.
With All-Star forward Anthony Davis injured recently, Ajinca has played more and scored in double figures in three straight games.
"It put a little more pressure on me, but I try to do everything I can to help the team and so far it works well," Ajinca said. "Hopefully it keeps going that way, but I want A.D. to be back. … Hopefully I can play with him the same way."
Virtually all of the Pelicans’ current winning streak has taken place without Davis, who sprained his right shoulder in the first quarter of New Orleans’ victory at Miami on Feb. 21. The Pelicans have since beaten Toronto, Brooklyn and Miami again, pulling one game behind Oklahoma City before the Thunder played at Portland later Friday night.
Quincy Pondexter scored 18 points for New Orleans in its latest triumph, and Dante Cunningham had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Asik finished with 10 rebounds and his one critical block.
Luol Deng had 22 points for the Heat, while Goran Dragic added 20. Whiteside, who blocked four shots, and Henry Walker each scored 16 points and Wade finished with 11 points.
Michael Beasley made his season debut in what began his third stint with Miami. He played 10:18 and scored seven points.
Miami took the only double-digit lead of either team late in the third quarter, thanks to a 12-5 run that began with Whiteside’s layup and ended with Walker’s 3, making it 82-72.
Miami led by nine after three, but Ajinca opened the fourth with an alley-oop dunk as he was fouled to ignite a 6-0 spurt which cut it to 82-79. That set up a tense ending to a game that had 19 lead changed and 16 ties.