DALLAS — The frustration began Wednesday night for the New Orleans Pelicans.
It’s not likely to end anytime soon.
Wednesday’s down-to-the-wire 112-107 loss to the Dallas Mavericks was only the beginning of a grinding stretch of games against much of the NBA’s elite teams.
New Orleans’ next 12 games include 10 against likely playoff contenders, six against teams with winning percentages north of .700, three against teams currently leading their divisions, two against defending NBA champion San Antonio … and a partridge in a pear tree.
OK, scratch the partridge. Add LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who come to the Smoothie King Center on Friday night.
It also includes three back-to-backs before the end of 2014.
When the Pelicans can finally come up for air, they should know a lot more about their team. They can only hope they like what they see.
“I like our guys and our growth,” coach Monty Williams said. “Obviously, there are always things you want to tweak. I’m not content at all, and that’s why I push as much as I do, but I like where we’re going.”
But what’s important is whether Williams will like where the Pelicans are Jan. 2, when they close their rugged run against Houston.
For that to happen, the team must establish some sort of consistent identity. Though that hasn’t really happened yet, Williams said he’s seen signs of something emerging — a team that can hammer opponents inside and on the boards and defend them hard.
“We’re turning into a bit of an old-school team, playing inside-out, trying to wear teams down,” Williams said. “I think it’s a byproduct of getting stops. When we get stops, we play in the paint because we’re in transition.”
The trouble is that those stops can be hard to come by. Against Dallas, they were nearly impossible to find in the second half, when the Mavericks shot 56 percent, including 59 percent in the fourth quarter, as guard Monta Ellis took over the game.
The Pelicans contended that wasn’t necessarily a reflection of their defensive effort, that Ellis and the Mavericks simply made more than their share of tough, contested shots. But the results showed the Pelicans still have a ways to go to become the rugged, defense-first outfit they hope to become.
“We had a couple of miscommunications at the end of the game,” star forward Anthony Davis said. “Monta came up and got two layups that were just miscommunication.
“I think the defense was pretty good. ... But we need to do a better job of talking, letting the guards know, especially with guys like Monta and Devin (Harris) coming off the screens, we’ve got to talk to them and protect them.”
Those communication issues cost the Pelicans a game they could have won, a game in which they outrebounded Dallas by an astounding 45-29 margin and got 30 or more points from Davis (31) and point guard Jrue Holiday (30).
They can’t afford more lapses with the schedule that lies ahead.
“These are games where we need to solidify how we’re going to play,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “It’s important to play consistently and figure out how to play hard every night.”
That consistency is the most important — and most elusive — factor for a young team trying to make a leap forward.
To Williams, it comes down to defense and effort. He found both in Tuesday’s home victory over the New York Knicks, but the defense came up missing 24 hours later at Dallas.
“The thing we hung our hat on last night, we couldn’t do it tonight as well as we would have liked to,” he said.
“It’s not anything that is written in stone. When you have a young team with several new guys, it takes time. But that is what we want to hang our hats on — defending. Sometimes the scheme doesn’t work out the way you want it to, but I feel like if we play at a high level and play hard every possession, effort can overcome that.”
The problem is, there’s a lot to overcome in the next month. The Pelicans believe they have the players to do just that.
Now they just have to prove it.
“I think we can compete with any team with the talent we’ve got,” guard Tyreke Evans said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play it.”
The Pelicans reassigned rookie point guard Russ Smith to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Development League.
The 6-foot Smith has already appeared in two games for Fort Wayne this season, averaging 14.5 points and 3.0 steals in 25.5 minutes per game.
The former Louisville star did not play for New Orleans after being called up last Monday, but coaches want Smith to have periodic practice time with the Pelicans as he continues to develop his game.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.