If the New Orleans Pelicans are in the nascent stages of a turnaround, if they’ve started the process of digging out of the deep hole they dug to start the season, they’ll look back and find that it began not with a win, but with another loss.
Friday night’s 104-90 win against the San Antonio Spurs at the Smoothie King Center snapped a five-game losing streak and gave the Pelicans just their second win of the season. But New Orleans had set a successful tone two days earlier in a loss at Oklahoma City.
“You could feel the difference in the game,” forward Ryan Anderson said Saturday. “The atmosphere, the emotions from the struggle of the season kind of went away. Even though we lost that game, it was refreshing to see that, even without a majority of our guys, we played hard, and the system works.”
The Pelicans’ resolve finally yielded fruit against the Spurs. As the Phoenix Suns visit at 5 p.m. Sunday, the Pelicans’ hope is that there’s a bigger harvest yet to come.
“I hope that we can just continue to build,” Anderson said. “I know that we can and we should continue to build off this momentum from San Antonio.”
Momentum has been in short supply for the 2-11 Pelicans.
Their only other win this season came at home against Dallas, but star Anthony Davis was injured in the first half and missed the first two games of a three-game road trip that resulted in three straight losses. Two more losses followed. So much for momentum.
But the Pelicans will enter Sunday’s game coming off their best win of the season — and with Davis back in the lineup for the second straight game.
“I think you create momentum, and I think you create momentum with consistency,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think momentum is just consistency, really. We keep talking about ‘Let’s build and take the next step.’ ”
The Pelicans took a step against Oklahoma City. Friday’s win against San Antonio was a giant leap, the Pelicans’ best performance of the season against a team tied for the second-best record in the NBA.
The difference is on defense. The Pelicans held the Spurs to a season-low 90 points on 40.5 percent shooting, San Antonio’s second-worst shooting performance of the season.
The Spurs shot 37.3 percent on 2-point shots and had only four second-chance points. And the Pelicans held them to 28 points in the paint, 17 fewer than New Orleans gives up on average.
Some of that is a growing familiarity with assistant coach Darren Erman’s defensive system. Some of it, Davis said, is about effort.
The Pelicans star two weeks ago questioned his team’s effort — including his own — but he has seen the change, both from the bench in Oklahoma City and on the court against San Antonio.
Players are asking to come out of the game because they’ve played so hard they need a break, Davis said. The Pelicans are coming into the locker room and “can’t breathe at halftime” because of the energy they’ve expended.
“We’re just leaving it all out there on the floor,” Davis said. “When you do that, you come closer as a team and you know that the guy to your left and to your right has your back. And it shows out there on the floor. We’re cheering for each other. When guys are down, missing shots, we’re pumping them up, but at the same time holding guys accountable. We’re starting to come together as a unit.”
But only just starting.
The Pelicans still have significant injuries — rotation players Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole, Quincy Pondexter and Kendrick Perkins are out for Sunday’s game — and a three-game road trip looms after Sunday’s home date.
As the Pelicans try to build momentum in the coming games, “some of those are going to be losses,” Gentry said. But at least there’s something to work with.
“We can’t take a step back,” Davis said. “We can’t go into Sunday against Phoenix and come out slow. We got to build off this win and kind of get us going, especially into this road trip.”
Pelicans 3-pointer: vs. Phoenix
The Pelicans wrap up a two-game homestand at 5 p.m. Sunday against the Suns. Here are three things you need to know:
1. Familiar face
Alvin Gentry coached the Suns for parts of five seasons from 2009-13. He went 158-144 with the Suns, including a 54-28 season in 2009-10, when he guided Phoenix to the Western Conference finals.
2. Knight rider
Suns guard Brandon Knight is having “one of the best weeks of any point guard’s career,” Gentry said. Knight had his first career triple-double in a win against the Lakers on Monday (30 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds) and scored a career-high 38 points in Friday’s win against the Nuggets.
3. Fits and starts
The Pelicans could start the same lineup Sunday as in Friday’s win against the Spurs. That would be a rarity: New Orleans has had 11 starting lineups in 13 games this season.