As his son raced past a scrum of reporters to chase a rolling basketball, DeMarcus Cousins smiled as soon as he was distracted.
Playfully dribbling after the New Orleans Pelicans' practice Tuesday afternoon, Cousins was fielding postpractice questions as reporters inquired about the Pelicans' resurgent defense, a unit which held the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat to 97 and 94 points in consecutive wins.
New Orleans tapped the pair of road wins the weekend before Christmas Day on Monday, bumping their streak to 6-0 when holding an opponent under 100.
The Pelicans' defense — or lack thereof in games before the Dec. 22-23 wins — controls much more than opposing points. For better or worse, pace, tempo and offensive structure are byproducts of defensive performance, point guard Rajon Rondo said.
With a revived defense and three days of rest, the Pelicans returned to preferred form, Cousins said.
"We got back to where we wanted to be defensively," Cousins said. "I think we gained our confidence back defensively. ... I think we got back to playing the way we wanted to play in the beginning. We kind of got away from that in some of the previous games, but we kind of got back to our ways. Hopefully we can carry that over in this next homestand."
If it's sustainable throughout their upcoming three-game homestand, beginning with the Brooklyn Nets at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and subsequently the Dallas Mavericks on Friday and the New York Knicks on Saturday, has yet to be seen.
Sitting with a record of 17-16 by Christmas Day, a sort of de facto new beginning to the NBA's lengthy 82-game season that spans basically all four seasons, the Pelicans' schedule this week is set to be a measuring-stick type of seven-day stretch on the defensive end.
"Definitely," Rondo said.
Brooklyn's in for yet another underwhelming season. The Nets are 12-20 before their late matchup Tuesday at San Antonio. Brooklyn will complete a road back-to-back Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans' opponent Friday, the Mavericks, are seated at the bottom of the Western Conference at 9-25 and are 2-14 on the road. New Orleans will end the homestand Saturday versus the Knicks (17-16), who lost by seven to Philadelphia on Dec. 25.
Home games against the struggling Nets, Mavericks and Knicks may yield a better sense of the seriousness of these Pelicans, who are tied for seventh in the West with the Portland Trail Blazers, as 2018 rolls around.
"Definitely," Rondo later said again. "We're going to control our own destiny. If we can take it with the mindset of one game at a time, especially in front of these fans here at home, I think we put ourselves in position to move up a little bit farther."
By the week's end, New Orleans could, quite possibly, have tapped 20 wins faster than any other recent season. The Pelicans reached 20 wins in their 52nd game in the past two seasons.
This season, New Orleans' 52nd game is scheduled for Feb. 3.
"Are we perfect yet? No," Cousins said. "Is our team perfect yet? No. But I definitely think we're on the right track."