It was safe to say that on Friday night the Smoothie King Center held more Pelicans’ fans than it had at one time all season.
While the building was full when superstars appeared in New Orleans from time to time this season, there was always a significant sampling of visiting fans occupying the seats. And although the team boasts 23 sellouts this season, including a run of 11 consecutive announced full houses since Feb. 27, most of those were marred by nearly full sections of empty seats in the upper bowl.
But during Friday’s 90-75 victory over the Phoenix Suns, not only were the seats mostly used, they were filled by Pelicans’ fans. Although many admitted to having divided attention.
With the Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder locked up for the eighth and final position in the Western Conference playoffs, thousands of fans had smartphones pulled up, checking up on the Thunder’s win over the Sacramento Kings, taking place 700 miles away.
Around 8:45 p.m. when the fourth quarter began in both games, and the Thunder lead nearly gone, fan Brian Landry said he felt like he was a tennis match, his neck was turning so often between his phone and the action on the floor.
“This one is just as important as that one to us,” Landry said. “Hopefully the team isn’t doing the same thing.”
Suns’ coach Jeff Hornacek knows the feeling. His team was locked in a months-long playoff chase last year before bowing out in the final week, fully understanding the position New Orleans finds itself in this week.
“You want to tell your guys to try to take care of their own business and whatever happens, happens,” Hornacek said. “Do sit there and look at the scoreboard and look at the standings and rationalize some stuff like when you lose but they lost to? No. You want to just win enough games to get in but it’s not always easy to do that.”
In order to help Pelicans’ players focus on the task at hand, the out of town scoreboard that displays on the main jumbotron was turned off.
And if there was any distraction, it was hard to judge based on the crowd reaction, which featured some of the loudest ovations of the season.
“The other night, we got a glimpse of what we can do here when we pack the house,” Williams said. “I think our fans have to understand how important they are to our team. We always talk about creating our own juice and sometimes we have to.
“If we could get the house packed there’s no telling how that could affect us in a positive way.”
Unlike his last home game, when Williams said he needed to give Anthony Davis a halftime pep talk, the Pelicans’ superstar made his impact felt early on Friday.
Davis notched 13 first-quarter points, the fifth time he’s done so this year and the 11th time he’s scored double-digits in the opening frame. Possibly more impressive was the way he scored, only lifting six shots to pile up the points.
However, his opportunity to pile up a career-high was cut short when he was elbowed in the throat by Earl Barron on a loose ball in the opening minute of the second quarter, forcing him to miss the second and third quarters.
The Pelicans officially diagnosed it as a throat contusion, listing him as questionable to return following halftime, but he was able to come back in the fourth quarter and score six more points.
“I was having trouble swallowing,” Davis wrote via text message to Pelicans’ PR because he was unable to speak. “The doctors made sure I was okay and and it was hesitation to come back and play.”
CRASHING THE GLASS
Omer Asik set a season-best mark, pulling down 18 rebounds against the Suns.
He managed to reach the mark of in just three quarters, sitting for the entirety of the fourth quarter. In his 22 minutes overpowering a smallish Phoenix lineup which is playing without center Alex Len.
“He’s big and he’s bigger than anybody we have,” Hornacek said. “We didn’t have Alex Len and Brandan Wright is about 220, and they fight, but when you give up 40 pounds and four or five inches, it makes it tough sometimes.”
Asik’s career high is 23 rebounds and he’s pulled down 22 on two other occasions.
“To get 18 rebounds in 22 minutes, that has to be a high for any NBA player this year to rebound at that rate,” Williams said. “That’s what we needed, because we couldn’t give them second chance points. Omer was big in keeping them from getting extra possessions.”
Reserve Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham connected on six of his eight shots, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the process...Established shooting threats Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Quincy Pondextder combined to make just 3-of-21 attempts from the field....The Suns field goal percentage never eclipsed 40 percent after the opening quarter, finishing 35.3 percent (30-for-85).