Two games don’t make a trend, but they can plant the seeds.
So when the New Orleans Pelicans were dropped by the lowly Sacramento Kings 114-103 in the Smoothie King Center on Tuesday night, it accelerated concerns about this team falling out of playoff contention on the heels of a devastating injury.
In their second appearance since losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a torn left Achilles, the Pelicans came out swinging but were swamped in the second half.
Unlike Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Pelicans didn’t jump out to a significant early advantage. Instead, the last-place Kings never allowed the Pelicans to build a lead larger than nine points.
So when New Orleans fell into its typical third-quarter drought, getting outscored in the period 29-23, it pushed Sacramento out in front for good. And the dreary, drowsy Pelicans simply couldn’t overcome it.
“They played harder than us, I think,” Anthony Davis said. “Our third quarters are getting decent looks but we aren’t doing anything on the defensive end. So, teams kind of know we’ll give it back in the third quarter.
“We suck in third quarters. We are a different team, and that’s where the games are won most of the time."
While they cut the lead to as low as one point in the fourth quarter, the Kings simply discarded the Pelicans in the final 90 seconds. Zach Randolph capped his 26-point, 12-rebound performance by completing a three-point play, sending fans to the exits, possibly questioning the rest of the season.
It was the exclamation point on Sacramento's dominant interior performance, as the Pelicans were outscored 26-0 in second-chance points.
The already dour Smoothie King Center veered toward complete silence as the second half wore on and the Pelicans were dragged down by the Western Conference’s worst team.
Just four nights ago, the building had an entirely opposite feel when the Pelicans knocked out the Houston Rockets, putting the finishing touches on their seventh win in eight games.
“I think anytime you lose a piece like DeMarcus, there’s going to be residue from it,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “In some way, we have to get over that. It may take a few games to do. But we have to get over it and move on. We are in a position where we are giving back a lot of things we accomplished in the last three weeks.
“So we have to find a solution and then we have to get it turned and then we have to move on.”
It was similar to Dec. 8, when Sacramento also walked off the Pelicans’ home floor as a winner. In fact, Tuesday’s win improved the Kings’ record to 4-20 as visitors in the Western Conference, with half of those victories coming in New Orleans.
While Davis notched 21 points and 13 rebounds, he struggled to perform consistently or take over the game for any prolonged stretch. And without Cousins, the Pelicans often failed to find a go-to player to carry them out of doldrums.
Davis insisted it’s not a crisis of confidence without Cousins, pointing to halftime leads in each of the past two games.
“Guys are playing well and moving the ball well early,” Davis said. “It’s not the offense as much as the defense. We just have to come out with energy, whether it’s coming out trapping or whatever. We just need more energy in the third quarter.”
The Pelicans mixed up their rotations a bit from their game of the post-Cousins era, particularly tinkering with the bench lineup at the end of the first quarter and beginning of the second.
In all, the Pelicans ran 11 different players onto the floor in the first half alone. It’s a significant deviation from most of the past month, when Gentry’s rotation often shrunk to eight guys for full games.
But, it didn’t keep the Pelicans fresh or focused for the start of the third quarter.
And now they’re left wondering if anything will.
“This third quarter thing is really, really bothering me,” Gentry said. “I’m not real sure why. I’ve talked about it. They’ve talked about it. We’ve changed some of the things we are doing ... I can’t seem to figure out why we struggle at the start of the third quarter.”