For many, the All-Star Game represents a midway point in the NBA marathon.
In reality, it’s the last lap of the race.
There are just 25 games remaining in the New Orleans Pelicans’ regular season, and they’re in a sprint to the finish line. The Pelicans make the turn on Friday night, ending a nine-day break by hosting the Miami Heat at 7 p.m. in the Smoothie King Center.
In a bunched up Western Conference, there’s magnitude felt as each of the final 47 days left on the regular season calendar pass by. Entering the weekend, New Orleans is wedged into a veritable five-way tie between fifth and ninth place, each team saddled with 26 losses.
And there isn’t much room on either side. The third-place San Antonio Spurs have 24 losses, and the 10th-place Utah Jazz have 28.
So, unlike the past several seasons, the Pelicans enter the final six weeks still uncertain whether this campaign will be a great one, a good one or a terrible one. It’s all still to be determined.
And the urgency to reach the playoffs is fully on. Even without DeMarcus Cousins (torn Achilles) available, the Pelicans believe they’re capable of pushing into the playoffs and potentially landing a seed better than No. 7 for the first time since 2008.
But it all swings on what transpires over the next 25 games.
“The (playoff push) actually feels like it started a couple of weeks ago,” Anthony Davis said. “Everybody is kind of in that little pool right there, and you’re trying to get into that playoff spot. It’s going to come down to the last game, I think, or at least the last couple of games. I think it really has started already.”
On the heels of a long layoff, and riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak, the Pelicans were admittedly refreshed when practice re-opened on Wednesday afternoon at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center.
Davis was the only Pelican to participate in All-Star activities, allowing the rest of the roster an opportunity to get healthy and rest their legs, gearing up for the finishing kick.
“I think we have a little juice there,” Jrue Holiday said. “Obviously, going to the destination of your choice was awesome. I got to spend time with my family. I got to sleep. I got to get away from basketball. It’s always good to just unwind.”
They’ll need every minute of that relaxation, considering the hellacious schedule lined up in front of them. While 25 games in 47 days is already compact, there are a few bunched-up stretches that will test the Pelicans’ depth and stamina.
Most notably is a mid-March crush, which includes the rescheduled contest against the Indiana Pacers that was postponed due to a leaky roof. Not only will the Pelicans play an unprecedented three home games on three consecutive days, but it’s squeezed into a stretch of four games in five night and six games in eight nights.
“I've never been a part of anything like it since AAU basketball,” Davis said. “I know they did it a lot in the lockout year. We'll see how it goes, but it'll be big time attrition and it's about taking care of your body.
“We are fighting to get into the playoffs, so have to be mindful of that, but also don’t want to put too much stress on my body.”
But, the Pelicans insist it won’t change their style. Already an up-tempo team, New Orleans is playing at the NBA’s fastest pace since Cousins was injured, averaging 105.2 possessions per game.
It’s a philosophy coach Alvin Gentry has long ascribed to, and one pushed even harder by point guard Rajon Rondo, who is routinely running the floor and chiding his teammates to get up and down the court.
“We’ve played with pace,” Rondo said, when asked how the Pelicans built their current three-game winning streak. “We’ve played with unselfishness. We were able to share the ball and we had a lot of high assist games. And when guys are sharing it, it gives the entire team energy. We need that to keep winning.”