The New Orleans Pelicans came together in the second half of Saturday night’s key Southwest Division victory against Memphis at the Smoothie King Center.
That 95-89 win, in which the Pelicans (34-29) overcame an 18-point deficit, appears to have put them back on course as the season’s fourth quarter opens — there are just 19 games remaining. And it came with New Orleans face-to-face with a road challenge.
The win against Memphis, bringing the Pelicans within a half-game of Oklahoma City (before the Thunder beat Toronto on Sunday, stretching the lead back to a game) for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot, came in the second of home back-to-back games, only their second such set this season.
Now the Pelicans face another back-to-back, their 16th of the season, but both of these next games are on the road: at Milwaukee (32-29) on Monday and at Brooklyn (25-36) on Tuesday.
“That’s when we really have to stick together,” power forward Anthony Davis said. “On the road, we have nobody else but us. We have to keep playing together, keep having fun and keep sharing the ball, and we’ve got to keep defending like we did in the second half of (Saturday’s) game.”
The Pelicans had been out of sync in their Friday night loss to Boston and through the first half against Memphis, which Davis and coach Monty Williams attributed to teammates trying to adjust to Davis making his return from a sprained shoulder. The injury sidelined him for all but three games (and 9 minutes of another game) from Feb. 9 to March 4.
But back-to-back road games are difficult enough. The Pelicans are 5-7 in those games this season, including 1-5 in the first matchup. And New Orleans is just 13-14 against Eastern Conference teams, including 3-10 in road games.
That’s a big reason the Pelicans are 12-18 away from the Smoothie King Center. Successful teams win at home and fight to get as close to breaking even (or better) on the road. The Pelicans need one win to surpass last season’s total for wins on the road.
“We’ve always played hard on a back-to-back, but you can’t do anything about the fatigue, especially coming out of Denver,” Williams said, referring to when Pelicans faced the Nuggets and Mavericks on March 1 and 2. “And there are a couple of other cities that are pretty tough. Then you lose an hour on the travel from the arena to the airport. That’s not an excuse; every team has to deal with it. But it is part of the equation. We’ve always tried to play hard, but sometimes we can’t (control) the results.”
The Pelicans will lose an hour going from Milwaukee to Brooklyn. But Davis and guard/forward Quincy Pondexter shrugged and said it’s basketball — time to man up.
“You just have to take care of your body, eat right and rest,” Davis said.
Backup center Alexis Ajinca pointed out that the Pelicans have lost both games of a back-to-back just once this season. That also came when both were road games — at Atlanta and Washington on Nov. 28-29. He said the Pelicans have grown in this area; although they lost at Dallas after playing in high-altitude Denver, the Pelicans stayed with the Mavs until late in the game.
“We know that in back-to-backs, your legs are heavier” in the second game, he said, “and you have to be ready to have a different fight. You have to be more focused and do the little things, set good screens, because in the second game, you miss shots you usually would make.”
The Bucks, a surprising sixth in the East, are 18-11 at home. Milwaukee obtained point guard Michael Carter-Williams in a three-team trade with Philadelphia and Phoenix, giving the Bucks someone more in the image of coach Jason Kidd, who was a triple-double waiting to happen during his NBA career.
The Bucks send a wave of effective big men at their opponents: 6-foot-11 center Zaza Pachulia and 6-11 versatile power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo are starters, with 6-10 power forward Ersan Ilyasova, 6-11 center John Henson and recently acquired 6-11 center Miles Plumlee coming off the bench.
Milwaukee ranked 21st in defense on Christmas but has risen to fifth at 96.6 points allowed per game.
The Pelicans beat the Nets 102-96 at Smoothie King on Feb. 25; they get a four-day break after Tuesday’s game in Brooklyn.