The past four days have been one of rest, preparation and reaffirming as the New Orleans Pelicans head into their final stretch of the season with a playoff berth dangling in front of them.
For the Pelicans (36-29), tied with Oklahoma City for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, there are 17 games and exactly one month until the regular season ends. With no games since Tuesday, this past week has been a chance to step back before moving forward.
“We have had four days to rest,” coach Monty Williams said. “We also had a couple of hard days of practice, to get (Quincy Pondexter, Norris Cole, obtained in trades) up to speed.
“We have to stay hungry and do the things that we’ve done since the All-Star break, which is play hard and play for each other and have an understanding of where we are right now and try not to get too carried away with human nature.”
Which is too much looking ahead and looking around. The Pelicans have won nine of their past 11 games, and heading into Saturday had the best record (8-2) in the West during the past 10 games among teams in playoff contention.
Eleven of their games the rest of the way are against teams in playoff spots or contention, with seven of those games on the road. Williams said it’s one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, but adds that every team in the West, particularly those fighting for the eighth spot, likely feels that way.
However, it’s a huge opportunity for the Pelicans. The franchise has not made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season, when it had point guard Chris Paul and power forward David West.
All-Star power forward Anthony Davis said the chase will be fun.
“It’s fun because every game matters,” said Davis, who helped lead Kentucky to the 2012 NCAA national title. That (opposing team) is going to bring it’s energy level, we’re going to bring our energy level. Every big moment, we just have to take advantage of it.”
Oklahoma City, despite the recent Herculean triple-double performances by point guard Russell Westbrook, have gone 4-4 in their past eight games, as reigning league MVP Kevin Durant has remained sidelined after having another screw placed in his right foot on Feb. 19. Durant, who participated in 3-on-3 drills Saturday will miss another week or two, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
In the event of a tie, the Pelicans already have won the season series against OKC, three games to one.
The Thunder, which also will be without power forward Serge Ibaka (sore knee), will play the Chicago Bulls on Sunday in a nationally televised home game. After that, there are other difficult games at Dallas, then surging Boston, hot-shooting Atlanta and Miami at home. Then, they are at San Antonio and at Utah (10-2 in past 10 games) and Phoenix in a back-to-back games, followed by a stretch that has Dallas, at Memphis, Houston and San Antonio. And, OKC’s final four games include Indiana and Portland.
Despite the Pelicans’ own tough schedule remaining, small forward Quincy Pondexter, who played on playoff teams with Memphis, said he likes the way they are trending.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” he said. “Guys are playing well, guys are getting healthy. We’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Much of that has been due to the team’s success all season against strong competition. New Orleans has a 16-10 record against teams they have to face the rest of the way, including 9-7 against teams in currently in playoff spots.
The most difficult games would appear to be at Phoenix and Golden State in a back-to-back March 19-20 and at the Portland Trail Blazers on April 4 after playing at Sacramento the night before.
The Pelicans twice will play Golden State, which has the best record in the West, and Houston and Phoenix, among playoff contenders.
“We just need to win the games we’re supposed to win and steal a few games on the road,” point guard Tyreke Evns said. “We’ve got to keep playing our basketball, everybody having fun, everybody touching the ball. We look like we know what we want to do out there.”
Much of that has been the play of reserves, which is usually key for any team in a playoff chase.
The Pelicans play a “suppose to win” game Sunday vs. Denver. However, the Nuggets (25-41) beat the Pelicans on Jan. 28 at Smoothie King and are 5-2 since Coach Brian Shaw was fired.