The New Orleans Pelicans were looking forward to returning after the All-Star break and making their final run of the season toward a Western Conference playoff berth.
That was based on key players Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday returning from injuries. Although Davis (sprained shoulder) and Anderson (sprained elbow) returned to practice Wednesday, the Pelicans received a jolt of bad news when it was announced that Holiday would miss an additional three weeks with what the team has said is a stress reaction in his lower right leg.
“He’s one of our leaders, a point guard who can do a number of things,” coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday’s practice, the first since before the All-Star break began Friday. “He can score, he can pass; defensively, he’s one of the best. And so you take that off any team, you’re going to have to figure out ways to get it back.
“We’ll make our adjustments.’’
With the trading deadline Thursday, there has been almost no speculation concerning the Pelicans making a move. However, Williams implied it could happen.
“(General Manager) Dell (Demps) and his team do a great job of looking for guys who could be available, whether it’s a buyout or a trade,” Williams said. “With Jrue’s situation, things could change, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy with the guys I have.”
Holiday experienced pain while rehabbing Monday and is in Los Angeles seeing a specialist. He missed the final 48 games last season with a stress fracture in the same area, and that necessitated surgery. A stress reaction often precedes a stress fracture.
Williams said he doesn’t think this is the same injury as last season.
“He was rehabbing, doing some light stuff and felt some pain after a move or something like that,” Williams said. “It’s a setback for him and for us. I just feel bad for Jrue because he was aiming for this Friday, this weekend to get back on the (court).”
The Pelicans go into their final 29 games with back-to-back games Friday at the Orlando Magic and Saturday at the Miami Heat.
The development with Holiday hits at one of the keys for the Pelicans’ chances down the final stretch: health. They were climbing the Western playoff ladder, one game behind eighth-place Phoenix after a monumental win at Oklahoma City on a last-second 3-pointer by Davis. That gave New Orleans seven wins in nine games, pushing their record to a season’s best 27-23.
However, Davis and Anderson were both injured the next night at home against the Chicago Bulls, and the Pelicans lost that game and the next two, sapping the hard-earned momentum they had created.
The continued improved cohesion of the backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Gordon was a big reason the team began to flourish. However, back-to-back games against the Thunder on Feb. 4 and Feb. 6 showed Holiday’s value when Oklahoma City All-Star Russell Westbrook erupted for 40-plus points in consecutive games, leading his team to victory in the first game.
That hits on a key moving forward. Although they have improved on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have to play better defensively to gain a playoff berth. Newcomers Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter have made the team better defensively, but Holiday is its best on-the-ball defender.
“We have to guard the ball,” Williams said. “That’s one of our things, our wings really have to step up these last 29 games and guard the ball so we don’t have to help out as much.
“When you have to help out every time down the floor, you give up rebounding, you give up penetration. When we’ve been really good and we’ve held teams in the 70s and 80s this year, we’ve guarded the ball.”
In the past two months, the Pelicans took a step back defensively. Now, they are 27th in the NBA in field-goal defense (46.1 percent), 27th in creating turnovers (12.0 per game) and 28th in giving up points in the paint (45.6).
However, their playoff destiny certainly is in their hands. Of the final 29 games, 17 are against playoff teams, with nine such games at home. The Pelicans will play 12 of the 19 games against Western Conference teams in playoff positions, with five at home.
A stumbling block could be the number of back-to-back games left, especially if the lineup does not return to full strength and reserve players are forced to play bigger roles over more minutes, which was the case in the three-game losing streak before the All-Star break.
Starting with Friday’s game at Orlando and Saturday’s at Miami, the Pelicans have eight sets of back-to-back games, which can wear down a team with a thin bench. They had 12 back-to-back sets in the first 53 games, going 12-12.
A bigger issue, Davis said, is the 10 games the Pelicans have lost this season against teams not in playoff positions, three coming directly after knocking off a top team.
However, it’s the 13 wins the Pelicans have garnered against teams such as defending champion San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, Atlanta and Toronto that have the Pelicans optimistic, Davis said. Execution was at a premium in those games, he said.
“Coach does a great job of giving us scouting reports and film on teams,” Davis said. “We have to execute the scouting reports and game plans.”
In the past two seasons thus far, Holiday has played in 71 games and missed 64. … The Pelicans signed backup point guard Toney Douglas to a second 10-day contract. Known as a good defender, he averaged. In three appearances, he averaged 9.0 points, 4.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds.