Pelicans hope Payton’s presence reinvigorates playoff hopes

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Pelicans guard Elfrid Payton has played in only seven games this season, and his team has won six of them.

The latest one came Monday night as he returned from a broken finger that caused a 22-game absence over six weeks.

“It felt good, man. It felt better to finish a game,” Payton said after helping New Orleans turn back the Minnesota Timberwolves 123-114 by scoring nine points in 24 minutes to go with six assists, a rebound and a steal.

“Get a win. That’s all it was about,” Payton said. “Do as much to help as possible — try to bring intensity on defense.”

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Payton, who also happens to be a New Orleans native, was acquired as a free agent this past offseason to fill the void left by Rajon Rondo’s departure for the Los Angeles Lakers.

New Orleans started 4-0 with him in the lineup. The Pelicans lost to Utah when he left early because of a sprained ankle that sidelined him for nine games. They won when he briefly returned against the New York Knicks on Nov. 16, only to break the small finger on his left, non-shooting hand.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took a conservative approach to Payton’s return, playing him about six minutes per quarter against the Timberwolves. But Gentry made sure Payton was on the floor for the close of each half.

“I like that,” Payton said. “I’m glad to be in in those moments.”

New Orleans lost six of seven before Payton returned. And a big problem during that stretch was the team’s inability to execute in the final minutes of close games.

Minnesota trailed by five with about five minutes to go Monday, but New Orleans never lost the lead.

“We have another ball-handler out there and a guy that can create stuff and make plays,” Gentry said, noting the importance of teaming Payton with Jrue Holiday in crunch time. “It just takes pressure off Jrue. It really does.”

Gentry said he figures Payton is only “going to get sharper and his timing is going to get better and his decision-making is going to get better. I mean, he’s sat out a lot of games.”

Payton said his goal was to try to get the Pelicans to “play as fast as possible, try to get the ball out quick.”

“I think we got a lot of good possessions tonight,” he added. “We’ve just got to keep that up.”

While Payton’s stat line was hardly a gaudy one, his teammates gushed over his influence on the game.

“He’s a great point guard,” said Darius Miller, who had 21 points. “He came out and he helped, and he’s going to continue to do so throughout the rest of the year.”

Added Holiday: “He pushes the pace. He gets to the basket. I don’t think he finished as well as he wanted to, but to be able to get there and make plays out of that was huge for us.”

“What he brings to the team, to the table, is so much — getting to the paint, putting pressure on guys” defensively, Holiday added.

Payton declined to address whether the Pelicans’ high winning percentage when he plays is coincidence or not. But he expressed confidence that New Orleans, which at 17-21 sits four games out of a Western Conference playoff spot, could climb back into the postseason picture.

“Definitely a small sample. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get it done,” Payton said. “Each game is its own entity.”

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