For the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s like cutting to the chase in their attempts to make a run at a playoff berth in their final 29 games of this NBA regular season.
Coming off the All-Star break, first up for the Pelicans (27-26) is the Orlando Magic (19-39) on Friday night, followed by the Miami Heat (22-30) on Saturday. The Pelicans play the Heat after obtaining point guard Norris Cole from Miami as insurance for injured Jrue Holiday. New Orleans traded small forward John Salmons and his expiring contract to the Phoenix Suns. The Heat obtained point guard Goran Dragic from the Suns.
With both games on the road, they hit at three challenges the Pelicans face if they are to beat the odds and land a Western Conference playoff berth.
First, starting with the Magic, New Orleans must beat teams that are struggling — teams they’re supposed to beat — although coach Monty Williams tries not to look at it that way.
“We’ve lost some games against teams we probably should have beaten,” Williams said. “But we’ve also beaten some really good teams and probably won some games we shouldn’t have won, so it balances out.”
For a team standing just outside a playoff berth, it’s more like the losses cancel out. The Pelicans are 10th in the West, 1½ games behind Phoenix, which is in the eighth and final playoff position, and one game behind surging ninth-place Oklahoma City.
The Pelicans have lost 10 games to teams not in playoff positions, which veteran Salmons told the team during halftime of a game “are the games you think about when you miss the playoffs.”
Second, New Orleans has to win road games to have a shot at the postseason. Sixteen of the Pelicans’ final games are on the road. Needing to finish with a conservative estimate of at least 48 wins, the formula of breaking even on the road and winning at home would be cutting things close. The Pelicans need to win at all costs.
Third, this is the first of eight back-to-back games down the stretch. The Pelicans finished .500 — 12-12 — in back-to-back sets through the season’s first 53 games. Again, .500 would leave no room for error in this chase.
Guard/forward Quincy Pondexter, who had been in such chases with a lot on the line with the Memphis Grizzlies, said the Pelicans are in for an experience. The key, he said, is consistency with effort, which can be difficult, particularly in the second games against teams who didn’t play the night before.
“I think once you bring that championship mentality, that playoff mentality to every game, whether it’s back-to-back, whether you’re tired, whether you have energy or not, you just have to leave it all out on the floor,” Pondexter said, “and that’s what we have to do.”
Williams said it will be part of a learning/improving progression for his team, most of which have not been in a playoff hunt.
The Pelicans likely will be buoyed by the return of All-Star power forward Anthony Davis and 3-point ace Ryan Anderson, both of whom missed the past two games with injuries in the team’s three-game losing streak before the break.
The two participated in Wednesday’s non-contact practice and Thursday’s full practice. Williams said Davis, who missed the All-Star game with a sprained right shoulder, did everything on the court, most important of which was shoot the ball.
“If I had to guess, I’d say he’s going to play (Friday), just based on how he looked today, running, jumping,” Williams said. “He’s not 100 percent, but he looks good. I think he’ll have some soreness for a while, then it will just go away.”
Anderson said Wednesday he experienced pain when he shot past mid-range. However, Thursday, he was knocking down 3s during after practice work.
The Magic is only 6-18 at home, but could be an ambush for the Pelicans. Coach Jacque Vaughn was fired on Feb. 5 and replaced by James Borrego, who was an assistant coach with New Orleans from 2010-12. Like Vaughn and Williams, Borrego he learned in the San Antonio Spurs’ system.
The Magic is 2-2 since Borrego took over, and led Chicago with 32 seconds left before losing 98-97. The Pelicans beat the Magic 101-84 in the season opener on Oct. 28 at Smoothie King Center.
The Heat is another matter, bolstered by power forward Chris Bosh and guard Dwyane Wade, who together have won two NBA titles and just last June played in the NBA Finals. Despite its record, the Heat is in the Eastern Conference’s eighth playoff spot and trying to fend off four teams all bunched within two games behind.