NEW ORLEANS -- Even as he toiled in the D-League as a 6-foot-1 bare-knuckle brawler of a point guard fighting on the fringes of the NBA, Tim Frazier never lacked for confidence. Before the first game of a 10-day contract with the Pelicans late last season, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps pulled Frazier aside to make sure he kept the approach that brought him to that point.
“Joking around with him, I told him, ‘Hey, if you play scared, we’re going to cut you right away,’” Demps said recently.
Frazier came off the bench that night last season and nearly totaled a double-double to help lead a Pelicans team held together by duct tape and D-Leaguers to a win in Sacramento. He stuck with New Orleans, his third NBA team since going undrafted out of Penn State in 2014, for the rest of the campaign. Then he was brought on for good, signing his first long-term guaranteed contract over the summer.
“He hasn’t looked back since then,” Demps said. “Even now, you can see the confidence in him.”
Frazier has maintained that disposition throughout the Pelicans’ troubled start to the 2016-17 season -- even as a national talk show host openly questions who he is; even as his spot in the starting lineup is threatened by the return of the point guard handpicked to ignite their star big man; even as the losses begin to mount once again.
The Pelicans seemed headed for yet another defeat on Monday. A lead of 14 points had fallen to one with 15.6 seconds left, with the Boston Celtics inbounding the ball underneath their own basket.
Movement began and Frazier bodied up Celtics guard Avery Bradley as Bradley tried to streak into the paint. As Bradley strayed down the baseline, away from inbounder Marcus Smart, Frazier quickly turned, read Smart’s intentions and darted in front of his pass to Amir Johnson for the interception.
“I just read Marcus’ eyes,” Frazier, who played with a head cold, said through a stuffed-up nose. “I tried to jump in front of it.”
After Frazier made just the second of two free throws, Isaiah Thomas broke cleanly for an easy layup on the other end to tie the game, 105-105, with seven seconds remaining. With no timeouts, Frazier received the inbound pass and ran up the court.
“Coach had told us just for me and [Anthony Davis] to do a high pick-and-roll,” Frazier said. “But I was in front of him.”
So Frazier stopped abruptly outside the 3-point arc, hoping to draw the big man he saw in front of him into the air or find Davis wherever he might be. Celtics center Kelly Olynyk bit immediately, and so Frazier contorted his body under Olynyk to draw two more free throw attempts. He would make just one of two free throws again, but it was all the Pelicans needed to seal a 106-105 victory for their first win at home this season and just their second win overall.
“Those are the kind of plays that win games for you,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
“He plays big. He went in there with all them trees down there and got that steal. Split the free throws ... . I know what we got to work on tomorrow.” Davis said with a wry smile. "And then does a great job to draw that foul on [Olynyk]. That was a big play. He played well all night. He’s been playing big this whole season for us, so we’re going to continue to need that from him.”
For Frazier, who began his career with the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ D-League affiliate, the night was particularly meaningful.
“It keeps getting brought up how hard I had to fight, so I’m going to continue to fight no matter what,” said Frazier, who finished with 10 points, six assists, three rebounds and one big steal. “And it feels kind of bittersweet to do it against the Celtics, the first team that gave me the shot. Nothing but thanks to them.”
The Celtics seem just as thrilled by his success.
“I think there are maybe 40 guys vying for All-Star spots in the league,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Then there are maybe 20 more on the cusp of that. But basically, everyone else has to play their role really well. So, guys that are just out of the league or just in the league are walking a very fine line. So, the guys who get better and work hard to get better and believe in themselves ultimately do really well.
“Tim Frazier is a great example. When Tim came to us for training camp the one year, he was a great guy to be around and a great guy to coach. He was not scared at all. That was clear from day one. That’s the kind of career he had at Penn State, so there was no surprise he made it. I was really happy for him.”