Jrue Holiday saw a late 12-point deficit as an opportunity to deliver a character-building message.
Fans had started filing out of the New Orleans Arena, the Pelicans were gathered at their bench for a timeout with 4:44 left, and Holiday told his young teammates: "It's time to grow."
New Orleans then outscored Cleveland 23-7 the rest of the way en route to 104-100 victory Friday night.
"There's going to be plenty of times, plenty of games where we're going to be down like that, but it was time for us to grow, grow together," said Holiday, who had 15 points and 11 assists. "Everybody kind of responded to that and picked up their defense. Everybody took their defensive assignments to heart."
Anthony Davis had 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans. Eric Gordon scored 19, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 31 seconds left to give New Orleans the lead for good.
Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, who had 22 points, drove for a potential tying layup with 23 seconds left, but lost the ball as he collided with Davis. As the Pelicans' Tyreke Evans corralled the loose ball, Irving took off his protective face mask in disgust, certain he was fouled.
After the game, however, Irving refused to blame the loss on that play.
"We had a chance in the fourth quarter. We gave ourselves a chance," he said. "There's a couple things we've got to get better at."
Evans and Holiday combined to make four free throws in the final 20 seconds to secure New Orleans' third straight win.
Cleveland coach Mike Brown hoped his young team would learn from its collapse.
"It's a tough loss, especially when you feel like you had control most of the game," Brown said. "But it's a growing, learning experience for a young group."
The Cavs led 93-81 with 4:44 to go after Earl Clark's third 3-pointer of the second half capped what appeared to be a decisive 9-2 run.
New Orleans coach Monty Williams responded with a lineup featuring his five top scorers: Gordon, Holiday, Davis, Evans and Ryan Anderson.
"That's a tough lineup because everyone is capable of scoring," Davis said.
What resulted was a 14-2 run that included 3s by Holiday and Anderson, as well as six points by Davis on a dunk, free throws and a tip-in of Evans' miss on a fast break to tie it at 95 with 1:29 to go.
"All our guys, instead of separating, came together," said Williams, who unleashed an emphatic fist pump as the horn sounded. "We know we can come back. We know we can play in close games. ... It was emotional."
Evans finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, including a clutch layup on a baseline drive with 1:01 left. Anderson had 13 points and Jason Smith 11.
Jarrett Jack scored 19 points and Dion Waiters added 14 for Cleveland, which led most of the way. Tristan Thompson added 12 points and Clark 11.
New Orleans managed to pull out the win despite being badly outshot, 53.2 percent (41 of 77) to 40.9 percent (36 of 88). The Pelicans made up for it with a 48-37 rebounding advantage, including 19 offensive rebounds that led to 25 second-chance points. The Pelicans also converted 20 Cavs turnovers into 21 points.
"Where the game was lost was 20 turnovers," Brown said. "On the road, you have 20 turnovers for 21 points, that's tough."
Waiters scored all his points in the opening half. Jack, who once played for New Orleans, made a running, off-balance 21-footer at the horn to give Cleveland a 51-42 halftime lead.
The Cavs led by as many as 11 in the third quarter on Thompson's hook shot. Later in the period, New Orleans briefly surged back in front with a 12-0 run that began with Evans' 3 and ended with Anderson's 3. But a 3-pointer by Clark and Jack's driving floater in the paint helped Cleveland take a 71-70 lead heading into the final quarter.
NOTES: Undrafted rookie Matthew Dellavadova got his first career start in place of C.J. Miles, who did not make the trip because of a right calf strain. Dellavadova did not score. He had one assist and two rebounds in about 12 minutes of playing time. ... Cavaliers rookie Anthony Bennett, the top overall pick in last summer's draft, was healthy and active but did not get into the game. ... New Orleans has won four straight at home. ... The Pelicans outscored Cleveland 23-2 in fast-break points. ... Davis has had a double-double in seven of the Pelicans' first 12 games.