Just after going on a scoring surge in which they averaged more than 111 points per game, the New Orleans Pelicans posted a big victory in Houston on Thursday night by relying on strong defense.
Coach Monty Williams said before the game that, although the Pelicans were starting to play well, getting to the next level would take becoming a better, more consistent defensive team.
Friday was mostly about reinforcing that notion. Coming off an emotional win and with games Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers and Sunday at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday’s practice time was spent cleaning up things rather than getting after it on the court.
“We focused on the style of play, trying to create some consistency,” Williams said. “There were times (against the Rockets) where it looked like we had six or seven guys on the floor because we had so many guys helping out (defensively) and covering for each other. So it allowed us to get out in transition, and that’s when we’re at our best because, with (Anthony Davis) at the rim, we can also shoot 3s.”
Playing a schedule this month against teams winning 67 percent of their games, including 10 in playoff position and four division leaders, the Pelicans have been up to the challenge, win or lose. So far, they are 6-4 in December and have won five of their past seven.
Against the Trail Blazers at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans face a team that beat them 102-93 on Nov. 17 in Portland. The first game of a four-game road trip in which the Pelicans finished an encouraging 2-2, that game still sticks in their collective craw. It’s one that nearly every player feels they let get away.
Williams has a different take.
“It’s easy for us to say we had the game won,” he said. “We didn’t. We didn’t play for 48 minutes; we played for about 40. (Portland) did what it took to win the game.”
New Orleans was in control for three quarters, leading by 16 in the third before going into the fourth with an 80-68 edge. But the Blazers, who lead the Northwest Division, began putting on pressure, with point guard Damian Lillard scoring and center Robin Lopez grabbing key rebounds.
The Pelicans began to play more one-on-one instead of doing what they had done to take control: share the ball. Portland thrashed the Pelicans in the fourth quarter, outscoring them 34-13.
Afterward, Williams said the Pelicans’ fourth-quarter execution was as bad as it had been all season to that point. That and the team’s shot selection, he said, let the Blazers gain life on the fast break.
That game was more than a month ago, but Williams has revisited the one-on-one play issue with the team.
“It’s a natural occurrence,” he said. “Guys just have a lot of confidence in their own ability. What we’re trying to create is a synergy of that and doing what it takes to do what’s best for the team. We have guys who are pretty good on their own.”
A win would give the Pelicans a three-game winning streak, their longest of the season. Like the Rockets did Thursday, the Blazers (20-6 heading into Friday night’s game at San Antonio) will be playing the second half of a back-to-back.
The Pelicans will do that at 6 p.m. Sunday at Oklahoma City, which they beat 112-104 at home Dec. 2. That game marked the return of league MVP Kevin Durant for the Thunder, his arrival coming one game after All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook’s return.
New Orleans shot to a 69-52 halftime lead then, after scoring just 16 points in the third quarter, sealed the win behind 15 fourth-quarter points by Tyreke Evans. After that loss, the Thunder (12-14) won seven in a row before losing Thursday night at Golden State.
Evans, who sat out Thursday’s game at Houston, has been diagnosed with a right knee bone bruise. He said he had a doctor’s appointment after Friday’s practice. “He’s day-to-day,” Williams said. “He feels a little bit better, but we don’t want to jump the gun with his situation.” … The Pelicans released point guard Gal Mekel on Friday. He signed Dec. 5 and played four games, averaging 1.5 points and 3.3 assists. He had not played in the previous four games.