When the New Orleans Pelicans take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, the team will have to use more small ball than they have the entire season.
That’s because the Pelicans are likely to be without power forwards Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, according to coach Alvin Gentry.
Randle, who sprained his ankle in Sunday’s loss to Miami, and Mirotic, who has been dealing with getting strength back in his right ankle after spraining it last month, are officially listed as doubtful on the Pelicans’ injury report but Gentry doesn’t expect either one to play.
“(Randle) is going to be out tomorrow and then you know, we’ll see after tomorrow where he is or what’s going on with it,” Gentry said on Tuesday afternoon (Dec. 18). “(Mirotic) is getting better, but he won’t play either.”
With Randle and Mirotic out, that leaves just Anthony Davis, Cheick Diallo and Jahlil Okafor as the only available big men for the Bucks game.
Davis said the logical step for the Pelicans was to play small against Milwaukee and he liked what he saw in Tuesday’s practice.
“We’ll have to go small and have to figure out,” Davis said. “We had different lineups today to start figuring it out how we might have to play. It looked good out there. We have to go with it. Long as we have five guys on the floor, we’ll be fine.”
Mirotic has missed the last three and a half games so the team has gotten used to playing without him in the last week or so. When Randle went down against Miami, the Pelicans used Davis with small forward Darius Miller and guards Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore and Andrew Harrison.
The lineup played from the 6:49 mark when Randle checked out until Holiday fouled out with 7.5 seconds left in the 102-96 loss to Miami. They went 6-of-13 from the floor with five assists and zero turnovers.
That group actually closed the Miami lead and finished with a plus-five rating on the court. Those five also had a 135.1 offensive rating – the number of points scored per 100 possessions– and a 102.8 defensive rating – the number of points allowed per 100 possessions.
It’s unlikely to see that group to start the game against the Bucks, who are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at 20-9. Gentry wouldn’t tip his hand on Tuesday about a potential starting lineup, but the Pelicans do have options.
According to Basketball Reference, 10 percent of Miller’s minutes have come at the power forward spot this season with Solomon Hill (seven percent) and Wesley Johnson (six percent) also logging a small portion of their minutes at the four spot.
Hill has started at the small forward position for the last six games. If he slides to the power forward spot in the starting group, E’Twaun Moore, who played 35 minutes against Miami, could return to the starting five as well.
Regardless, it will mean more minutes for Diallo and Okafor. Diallo is averaging 3.7 points and 3.7 rebounds this season and he had a 10-point, 10-rebound performance in 23 minutes against Dallas on Dec. 5.
Okafor has started two games this season but has only played in 13 games. In fact, his last significant minutes came in that second start back on Nov. 1 against Portland. Still, Gentry thinks he’ll be prepared when his named is called.
“He’s worked extremely hard, as hard as anybody every day he comes in here,” Gentry said. “As I told him before, you have to work and continue to work because you never know when the opportunity is going to come your way. I think he’ll be ready whenever we stick him out there.”
The Bucks game starts a stretch of four games away from home for New Orleans. The team travels to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers on Friday and then Sacramento on Sunday.
The Pelicans will head back home for Christmas before playing at Dallas on Dec. 26.
At 15-16 – and alternating losses and wins in their last 11 games – New Orleans hopes they can find some sort of consistency on the trip even while missing some key pieces.
“It’s going to be good tests for us,” Davis said. “No matter who is playing, we have to go out there and compete at a high level on both ends of the floor. We do that, we should be able to come out with three wins.”