Are the New Orleans Pelicans driving their way to the Nice List? _lowres

Associated Press photo by JONATHAN BACHMAN -- New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans drives against Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum during the second half Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans won 115-89.

Well, here we are at Christmas, and neither one of Tom Benson’s teams has reached double-digit victories.

But at least one has a pulse.

After a 1-11 start that had them looking like the Philadelphia 76ers of the Western Conference, the Pelicans have actually played .500 ball (8-8) since then, starting with their 114-108 overtime victory against LeBron James and Cleveland through Wednesday’s 115-89 takedown of Portland.

Despite only three teams in the league having fewer victories than they do, the Pels are surprisingly just 3½ games out of eighth place in the West, albeit with other teams ahead of them. ESPN projects them to go 27-27 the rest of the way finishing 36-46 and ninth in the West, but with a 30-percent chance of making the playoffs.

Which is certainly better than the zero percent chance the Pels’ Black And Gold-clad roommates at 5800 Airline Drive have.

On Wednesday, it definitely helped that the Trail Blazers came to the Smoothie King Center with their only identifiable player, Damian Lillard, out with plantar fasciitis (Is there an epidemic or something going around?) and despite the prospect of their first five-game winless road trip in 43 years, played like they just wanted to get it over with and make it home to the Northwest before Santa arrived.

At least ABC/ESPN won’t be embarrassed to lead off its five-game Christmasfest with Miami playing host to a team already hopeless and out it, but without the hook of Kobe Bryant’s final time in such a setting.

And in the NBA, they all count. Some count more than others, though.

For the Pelicans, this was as much of a must-win as a team can have in December.

Unlike his predecessor who would never publicly acknowledge one game meant more than another, first-year Pels coach Alvin Gentry said so before Wednesday’s game, pointing out that if his team had any chance of climbing out of the hole it dug for itself in the first month of the season, it had to win at home against teams that also are trying to get in the playoff picture.

“We’ve got to make it a point that it means something to be playing in this building,” he said.

Wednesday the Pels took the lead in the final minute of the first quarter, stretched it out to 17 at halftime and never let it get close over the final two quarters.

Last season, the Pels lost six home games against similar opposition.

It’s a big reason why Monty Williams is no longer the coach.

“Nobody had to tell us we’ve definitely got to win games like this one,” point guard Tyreke Evans said. “Just come out and punish them and don’t take anything for granted even if one of their main guys isn’t out there.

“We went out and played hard for 48 minutes, just like we should every night.”

But a modest two-game winning streak doesn’t necessarily represent a turning point for this team.

There are serious talent deficiencies and lingering adjustment issues for a franchise that stood pat on its roster while making a coaching change despite making the playoffs.

Never mind that internally the goal was to win about as many games as last year (45), hopefully make the playoffs again and then judge how many of the core players to go forward with.

“The Pelicans,” ESPN declared before the season, “are on the edge of greatness.”

It obviously hasn’t happened and isn’t going to this season.

“I was not a fan of the move,” ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo said during a conference call promoting Friday’s games. “I love Alvin and he was an excellent choice, but it took away the continuity, too.

“It was going to be hard enough with the injuries. So I thought from Day 1 it was an impossible situation.”

One issue has been with Evans, whose more-deliberate style as a point guard conflicts with Gentry’s push-the-tempo philosophy.

Plus, Evans missed all of training camp and the first 17 games after knee surgery, precisely the last thing a new coach and his point guard need.

A recent SB Nation story suggested Evans is too talented not to play, but too one-dimensional to do well in a fast-moving offense. Maybe his performance Wednesday — 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds — shows he and Gentry are reaching a happy medium.

“The pace Alvin wants is a 16-second shot clock; we get that every day in practice,” Evans said. “Now we’ve got to try to go out and do that every game.”

But, Evans added, “sometimes I have to read the game, because the coach isn’t out there.

“I may want to take it slower to get a good shot.”

Stay tuned.

The defense is also a work in progress, although Portland’s 89 points were the fifth-fewest allowed by the Pels this season, and the Blazers’ .347 shooting percentage was by far the worst by an opponent.

“We did an OK job (Wednesday night),” guard Jrue Holiday said. “But that’s some we’ve still got to get a lot better at.”

There are no questions about the playing and leadership skills of Anthony Davis.

After the debacle in Phoenix last week that had Gentry blasting the team’s effort, Davis called two players-only meetings where he took the lead in letting every one know what was expected of him.

“We have to hold each other accountable,” Anthony Davis said. “We just make sure we get on each other when we’re doing something wrong and motivate each other when we’re doing something right.

“Before (Wednesday night), I told them to get out and put them away early. It’s our home floor and let’s go attack ’em.”

That they did.

So now it’s on to Miami and the national spotlight.

“This is the first time for a lot of us playing on Christmas, and the Heat is on every year,” Evans said. “It would really be good to go down there and get them.

“We need to keep this going with another win.”

Hey, good things have been known to happen on this day.

Merry Christmas, everybody.