You don’t hear many Merle Haggard songs playing in the Pelicans locker room.
But during the past month, “If We Make It Through December” would have been appropriate.
The locals faced a season-high 17 games, nine of them on the road, with four back-to-backs. Of the 17 games, 13 were against 2014 playoff teams, plus one against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And did we mention Eric Gordon was out the entire time with a torn labrum?
For a team that entered the month a game under .500, that’s a make-or-break scenario — not just for the team but for coach Monty Williams, who entered the season atop most NBA hot seat lists.
It was the same thing for Sacramento, which was 8-7 at the end of November but has since gone 4-12 and now has a new coach.
But the Pels — and Williams — did make it through December, going 9-8 despite a heartbreaking New Year’s Eve loss at San Antonio that featured Omer Asik’s one-in-a-gazillion own goal that sent the game to overtime.
They bounced back Friday, though, starting 2015 with a shocking 111-83 romp against Houston that put them a game over .500, and tied with Phoenix in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference while leaving Rockets coach Kevin McHale fuming, “They just came out and kicked our tails up one side and down the other.”
Williams, who professes never to look past the next game or practice, had to acknowledge it:
“I didn’t want to pay attention to it, but I did think it was a good month for us,” he said. “Now we need more positive months like that.”
January, plus a few days in February, could and should be just that.
Between now and the All-Star break, the Pels play 20 games, and only seven of them are against teams with winning records — including Washington, which comes to the Smoothie King Center on Monday.
There are just two back-to-backs and, despite a five-game eastern road trip that begins next week, 12 of the 20 are at home.
That’s about as favorable a scenario you can get, especially if you want to be in the playoff picture in April.
Last season, it took 49 victories for Dallas to gain the final playoff spot in the West. That’s likely to be the benchmark again this season. With Oklahoma City just behind the Suns and Pels, the defending champion Spurs, currently in the No. 7 spot, are unlikely to slip backward and, barring a collapse by any of the other top teams, the Pels, OKC and Phoenix realistically are in a three-way competition for one berth.
“We all follow the standings,” said Tyreke Evans, who had one of his best shooting nights (10-of-15) of the season against the Rockets. “We know we’re right there right now, but .500 isn’t going to cut it. (Beating Houston) was a good way to start. But we’ve got to put together some winning streaks.”
That’s the one thing the Pels haven’t been able to do.
Despite some impressive victories — at San Antonio, both home and on the road vs. Oklahoma City, at Houston — and going 13-11 in the conference, they are yet to win more than two in a row.
“We’ve got to be more consistent,” said Ryan Anderson, who had 22 points off the bench Friday. ”One game we’ll be great defensively, and the next one we won’t. We’re still figuring out how to play off each other, but more than anything else it’s controlling the tempo.”
That wasn’t a problem Friday when the Rockets (22-9 despite losing four of their previous seven) came into a game they figured to win and instead played so poorly that McHale pulled his starters two minutes into the third quarter.
When Anthony Davis can make only two shots and finish with seven points but the team still wins by 28, you know it has been a good night.
Friday was an opportunity for Williams to use his bench more than usual, including forward Dante Cunningham, the team’s only acquisition since the season began, who has proved to be an element the team was lacking: a long, unselfish player who provides consistent defensive help (three steals Friday) along with occasional scoring bursts (13 points vs. the Rockets).
That that’s the only significant move the team has made shows the organization has confidence in its roster. Certainly there’s no desire to touch the core in order to build up depth.
That depth will be enhanced in the coming days when Gordon returns, so much so that Williams has said he is considering bringing Gordon off the bench while continuing to start Luke Babbitt at small forward and keeping Evans at shooting guard.
Other than Gordon, the Pelicans have been fortunate with injuries this season. It was a year ago this week when Anderson and Jrue Holiday went down within a week of each other, never returning, along with Josh Smith, whose last game was in December.
The Pels were 15-17 at the time. They would lose eight straight and finish 34-48.
Making it through January without any similar misfortune would be a major boost for the team’s playoff hopes.
Maybe The Hag can come up with a song about that.