PORTLAND, Ore. — The New Orleans Pelicans headed home down but far from out after Saturday night’s 99-90 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Pelicans had hoped to put an exclamation point on a successful eight-day run but ran into a Blazers team that owns New Orleans on its home floor. The win was Portland’s eighth consecutive over the Pelicans in Moda Center.
But two wins during their three-game road trip, part of a four-game winning streak that ended Saturday night, vaulted the Pelicans back into serious contention for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth.
And after Oklahoma City (42-35) lost 115-112 to Houston on Sunday afternoon, the Pelicans (41-35) trailed the Thunder by just a half-game for the eighth spot with six games remaining. Seeking their first playoff appearance since the 2010-11 season, the Pelicans control their destiny heading into Tuesday’s 7 p.m. game against Western Conference top seed Golden State in the Smoothie King Center; they have a game in hand on Oklahoma City and own the tiebreaker between the teams.
The Pelicans were a little down following Saturday’s performance. They led by double digits in the first quarter, rallied from a 16-point deficit to take an 81-77 lead in the fourth and then faltered in the final minutes.
“We wanted to win. That’s why it came down to the end. We just ran into a good team in Portland that hit a couple tough shots at the end,” said guard Eric Gordon, who led the Pelicans with 22 points.
But if there’s a silver lining to the loss, it’s that knowing all games from here on out will feature a playoff atmosphere.
“It was one of those games where the crowd is going to be crazy at the refs, and it’s very playoff-like,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “Obviously we’re heading toward the end of the season, and we wanted to grind it out like it was a playoff game. But we just can’t let teams have runs like that at the end.”
The sentiment with six games remaining is improving for New Orleans. Just eight days ago, Oklahoma City had a four-game bulge over the Pelicans for the West’s final playoff berth.
“We’re still in the fight. Most people thought we’d be out of it at this point,” coach Monty Williams said. “Not a lot of games left, but we’re in it.”
The schedule remains in Oklahoma City’s favor. Three of the Thunder’s final five games are at home, and just three of them are against playoff contenders. The Pelicans play three of their final six at home; five are against playoff contenders, a road matchup with Minnesota the only exception.
But in terms of momentum, New Orleans clearly has the edge, having won four of five. After Sunday’s loss, Oklahoma City has dropped five of six.
But since the Pelicans and Thunder don’t play again, New Orleans is worried about what it can control. The immediate goal is to eliminate some of the offensive struggles that popped up Saturday.
“We need to be playing playoff-style basketball,” Anderson said. “Through some stretches we do and showed that tonight. But we need to continue to keep battling and keep fighting for wins.”
If New Orleans makes the playoffs, its likely first-round opponent is Golden State, which owns the league’s best record (63-13 entering Sunday’s game at San Antonio) and has clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Some reward for a late-season surge.
“Golden State is ahead of everybody right now, the way they’re playing,” Williams said. “I reckon if they played all their guys big minutes, they could have 70-plus wins.”
Former Pelicans center Chris Kaman had a big game off the bench for Portland on Saturday, posting 16 points and 11 rebounds. “I’m not one for superlatives, but it might have been his best game,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. ... Pelicans forward Anthony Davis missed his first five shots and had a somewhat quiet night with 19 points and nine rebounds. ... Williams said two critical factors in the loss to the Blazers were Portland’s 18 offensive rebounds and 31 first-half bench points. “Those two things really hurt us,” he said. Portland’s bench had its way throughout the game, outscoring the Pelicans bench 39-22. The Blazers’ four reserves shot 16 of 30. “When we made the shift to our bench, we just couldn’t get the same effectiveness on offense,” Williams said.