With the New Orleans Pelicans trying to become more consistent in their play, the Phoenix Suns invade Smoothie King Center on Tuesday night.
The Suns’ presence should be a reminder of how costly it can be when winnable games slip away. Phoenix won 48 last season but did not make the Western Conference playoffs.
And in the Suns (18-14), the Pelicans (15-15) face a team that can get hot in a hurry with its outside shooting, as Phoenix showed last season in sweeping four games from New Orleans. The Pelicans defense is at the heart of their inconsistency, which won’t cut it in a conference loaded with very good teams.
Last season, the Suns, with basically two point guards in the starting lineup — Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe — gave the Pelicans fits with their penetration into the lane. That opened up Phoenix’s 3-point shooting. This offseason, the Suns added former Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas, enabling them to stay consistent in their offense when Dragic or Bledsoe goes to the bench.
“I guess it’s just another extension of the West: good guard play,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said. “They obviously like to drive and dish for 3s. They get to the basket really well.”
The Pelicans will have to do a good job of staying in front of the player each is guarding. Phoenix, with its guards’ quickness, feasts when defenders are forced to help teammates trying to prevent drives.
Who knows if the Pelicans are up for the task. For a team built on defensive concepts, they are 26th in the league in opponents’ field-goal percentage (47.0) and 22nd in points allowed per game (102.1). The Pelicans have allowed 100 points or more in nine games in December, six of them losses.
“It’s frustrating, no question,” coach Monty Williams said. “It’s frustrating because we do it one night, and then another night we don’t. That part is where I have to look at the big (picture) as a coach and look at the process and not diminish the good things that we’ve done and continue to teach how we can get better.
“A lot of our woes are happening if we don’t have a good shooting night. It sometimes can affect our defense.”
The inconsistent defense has been surprising. Davis, who leads the NBA in blocked shots, is considered a good defender, as well as center Omer Asik and Holiday. Williams said more than three playing good defense is needed.
There are lapses, Davis said, individually and teamwise.
“Sometimes, everybody is not locked in (on defense), including me,” he said. “I have a key matchup, and you’re just worried about that guy, and you’re forgetting about the team concepts and the scheme of the defense.”
Amid those Pelicans concerns, the Suns enter on a six-game winning streak. That came after Phoenix lost six in a row.
The Suns make the most off their drives to the basket. They are second in the NBA in 3-pointers made at 10.1 per game. And drawing fouls, they shoot 80.0 percent on free throws, which leads the league.
“If you have to help (defensively), they get 3s,” Williams said. “And you have to keep them out of transition. That’s where they get a majority of their 3-point shots.”
Phoenix can play defense, too. The Suns force 18.2 turnovers per game, fifth in the league, and average 18.7 points per game off turnovers, which is third. With that combination and their 3-point shooting, they are rarely out of games. Five times this season the Suns have come back from double-digit deficits, including wins against San Antonio, Golden State and Dallas.
Tuesday’s game is the first of a back-to-back set, the fourth one the Pelicans will have played in December. On Wednesday night, the Pelicans play the Spurs in San Antonio.
The Pelicans beat San Antonio on Friday at Smoothie King, the first time since the team moved to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season they’ve won back-to-back regular-season games in the same season against the Spurs.
On Wednesday, the Pelicans will try for a third win in a season against San Antonio for the first time.
Guard Eric Gordon participated in shooting drills after practice Monday. Williams said Gordon’s progress has been encouraging but added he’s not sure how close Gordon is to rejoining the team. “We’re just going to start to ramp him up and see where his conditioning is and how his shoulder responds to more each day,” Williams said. On Friday, it will be six weeks since Gordon was injured at Utah on Nov. 22. Doctors said upon examining him that his rehabilitation process would take about six weeks. … NBA Players’ Association executive director Michelle Roberts, elected last summer, and association official Roger Mason Jr., a former New Orleans Hornet, visited with the team Monday after practice. Roberts is visiting league teams to get the players up to date on labor issues. The collective bargaining agreement is up after the 2016-17 season. … A victory would clinch a winning month for the Pelicans, who are 8-7 in December.