There are countless steps on the path to contention.
After two losing seasons and a nearly complete roster overhaul, the New Orleans Pelicans are one quarter of the way through their journey back to the postseason.
They ventured past another guidepost during Wednesday’s home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, failing to properly regroup after a bout of adversity and allowing a single moment in the second quarter to disrupt their attitude and alter the tenor of the game.
Anthony Davis was ejected for the first time in his six-year career, hit by a pair of technical fouls on one round trip of the court. Within 16 seconds, the Pelicans went from relying on their All-NBA forward to watching him walk toward the locker room under a chorus of boos.
Point guard Rajon Rondo described it as being “emotionally hijacked.” Without Davis, Minnesota pounced on the suddenly fragile Pelicans, racking up a 120-102 victory.
Now, New Orleans (11-10) faces a critical two-game, two-day road trip, starting at 8 p.m. on Friday night against the Utah Jazz before traveling to Portland for a Saturday tip against the Trail Blazers. Both opponents are among the Pelicans’ chief rivals in the Western Conference standings.
It’s an opportunity to put the lessons learned Wednesday night into practice. While it’s unlikely the Pelicans will experience the kind of shocking and sudden change associated with Davis’ ejection, it’s an example of potential adversity that comes with a fight into the playoff race.
“We just have to continue to stay together,” Rondo said. “We need to learn how to handle adversity a little bit better, whether we are playing 5-on-5 or 5-on-8. Either way, it’s up to us to find a way and not make any excuses.
“All teams go through it. Great teams, with superstars, at a certain point of the game if they’re not getting the calls, they can speak their mind to officials however they like. But there are certain ways to do it and (Wednesday) just didn’t go the right way.”
It’s not the first ejection New Orleans has been handed this season. DeMarcus Cousins was tossed after delivering an elbow to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook’s head last week.
But, the Pelicans gathered steam after Cousins was booted midway through the third quarter, rallying to a 114-107 victory over Oklahoma City.
But coach Alvin Gentry said quickly adjusting to life without Davis on Wednesday proved to be too difficult, and the problem was less about scheme than the flow of the game.
“We tried,” Gentry said. “We tried ball movement and everything, but obviously, you can’t lose a player like that and think you’re going to be the same. The guy had 17 points in 17 minutes, so when he leaves and you lose something like that, it’s hard. You go back and look at the history, he’s played well against (Minnesota) every time out.”
More difficulties will be awaiting the Pelicans down the road, especially as they continue to battle for positioning in a crowded Western Conference.
Some nights it will be foul trouble, others it will be injuries or cold shooting. Regardless, Wednesday served as a bellwether sign and a place the Pelicans can point back to at the end of the season to see if the lesson stuck.
“It was tough adjusting like that on the fly and things like that happen,” Cousins said. “We just should have done a better job of regrouping and gathering our thoughts and ourselves together and finishing the basketball game.”