The New Orleans Pelicans are on a three-game losing streak and trying to fix an ailing offense before things get worse.
The Pelicans (7-8) play the Oklahoma City Thunder (5-12) on Tuesday night at Smoothie King Center looking to end a three-game losing streak with a three-game road trip on the horizon. The Thunder, expected to contend for the Western Conference title, has been without its two best players — NBA MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook — for more than a month with injuries.
However, Westbrook, who had a broken right index finger, returned Friday against the New York Knicks. Durant, who had surgery six weeks ago to repair a fracture at the base of his right small toe, is expected back this week. He is listed as questionable for Tuesday night’s game.
The Thunder, which has won its past two games, clearly was excited over the return of Westbrook against New York.
“Getting those two guys back, if Durant does play, I’m certain will give them a jolt of energy,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said Monday.
Williams is looking for a similar jolt. The Pelicans were 7-5 and trending upward by moving the ball and with 21-year-old star power forward Anthony Davis playing perhaps the best in the league.
They have since lost three consecutive games, the past two on the road, in which play turned from moving the ball well offensively to more one-on-one basketball. During the losing streak, the Pelicans shot 39.7 percent. And in their most recent game on Saturday at Washington, New Orleans shot 37.0 percent and had just 12 assists.
After an off day, they were back at practice Monday working on a remedy. Small forward Tyreke Evans said most of it involved trying to find the right player to replace injured shooting guard Eric Gordon, who has been out with a torn left labrum since the Pelicans’ win at Utah, the last game of a four-game Western Conference road trip. The Pelicans haven’t won since then.
“The guys we put in that position (the past three games), I think they were comfortable in their role off the bench,” Evans said. “I talked to Austin, and he said he’d rather come off the bench because he could watch and see more. He plays better that way.”
In an effort to replace Gordon, Williams first put Darius Miller in the starting lineup at small forward, with Evans moving to Gordon’s spot, in the team’s home game against Sacramento on Nov. 28. Miller shot just 1-of-8. Williams then tried Rivers in Gordon’s spot in the next game at Atlanta, and he went 0-of-8, then went 1-of-5 at Washington.
In the past two games, however, John Salmons, a 13-year veteran, shot a combined 7-of-15, including 4-of-7 on 3-point attempts, suggesting he is finally comfortable in the offense. He appears to be the logical starter at small forward or shooting guard and played both spots in the two games.
“Our best offense is when we’re moving the ball, when everybody is involved and getting touches,” Salmons said. “Everybody is more comfortable in that role.
“Because we’ve got so many scorers, guys who can make plays with the ball, sometimes it tends to get stuck in one spot.”
Miller, who was picked in the second round in 2012 from Kentucky, was waived Sunday amid reports that the Pelicans were extremely interested in signing forward Dante Cunningham, who played for the Portland Trail Blazers while Williams was an assistant coach there.
Williams would say only that Cunningham was not yet a Pelican, but he reportedly worked out for the team during the weekend, and it would not be surprising if he is signed and ready to play against Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile, the other part of Monday’s practice was an emphasis on ball movement again and getting back the oomph in their play. After this game, the Pelicans go on three-game trip West in which they will play Golden State, the league’s hottest team, the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the conference’s top teams the past few years, and the Los Angeles Lakers, who on Sunday beat the Toronto Raptors, the team with the Eastern Conference’s best record.
“It’s going to be a big game for us and OKC,” Evans said. “They’re fighting to get their record where they want it to be. We’re fighting to get where we want to be. They’re going to come after us.”
“We had Darius for three years, I tried to start him. We just felt like in both situations we had to create some flexibility in case we wanted to make some moves going forward,” Williams said concerning Miller and Patric Young, a rookie power forward from Florida, being waived Sunday. “Patric was a difficult decision because we didn’t know what it would be like for him going forward.” … Lance Thomas, who played with New Orleans the past three seasons, is starting at small forward with Durant out. A strong defensive player, Thomas earned a spot on the team as free agent without a guaranteed contract. Durant returned to practice last week. At that time, it was reported he could be back in two games, which would point to Tuesday night.