Underneath the sound of sneakers squeaking, blaring music and public address announcements, one could probably hear a dirge being played in the Smoothie King Center on Sunday evening.
But the Pelicans weren’t ready to be buried just yet.
The Pelicans’ stirring 109-105 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers may have contained the emotions of a funeral prior to tipoff, with the franchise announcing Anthony Davis will miss the remainder of the season, but that didn’t stop the small platoon of healthy Pelicans from pulling out one of the season’s most rousing victories.
Despite watching its 10-point lead sliced down to one in the final 30 seconds, the Pelicans hung on when DeAndre Jordan missed at the free-throw line, allowing Jrue Holiday and Luke Babbitt to convert two free throws each and keep the Pelicans ahead by three.
Then, Austin Rivers’ 3-point attempt rimmed out in the final two seconds, completing the Pelicans’ second win in their past three games.
Even with news of Davis undergoing surgery to his torn left labrum, in addition to a knee procedure, when the lights came on, New Orleans played like a team in the playoff hunt rather than one counting down until the end of the season. It gave their fans a reason to celebrate through one of the year’s most difficult days.
“I thought we did a great job defensively,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “They shot 40 percent, and that’s a team that’s ranked in the top-five of the league offensively. We did a good job with that. We were on our heels a bit at the end of the game, but we still found a way to come through.
“To me, the way we competed and the way we were able to find a way to come up free throws and a basket at the end, it was very impressive.”
Davis’ absence may be the most noticeable, but he joined a fleet of teammates on the injury report, which swelled to a season-high seven players Sunday. Ryan Anderson was a late addition to that list, straining his groin, leaving him unable to play.
The Pelicans have missed 230 games due to injury and illness this season, including 159 from likely starters. And that number is going up.
Davis joins Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, Eric Gordon and Bryce DeJean-Jones as Pelicans who will not return this season.
“It’s been awful,” coach Alvin Gentry said before the game. “This is the most frustrating season I’ve ever been through. It’s frustrating for the players, the owners, for management and for everybody else. We did not anticipate the season going this way.”
But there was a glimmer of hope shining through the darkness of Sunday’s announcement.
The Clippers carried the lead throughout the first half, but New Orleans gained an advantage early in the third quarter and stretched its lead to double digits deep into the fourth quarter. Even with a thin eight-man rotation for most the night, the Pelicans were able to maintain a significant fourth-quarter advantage.
Los Angeles, playing its second game in less than 24 hours, appeared far more fatigued than the injury-strapped Pelicans.
Holiday carried the load offensively, scoring a team-high 22 points while helping distribute to a balanced Pelicans’ offense that featured six players scoring at least 12 points.
Tim Frazier, playing on a 10-day contract, compiled 17 points and seven rebounds, running the offense fluidly even with a lack of scoring weapons around him. Dante Cunningham had a season-high 19 points on 10 field-goal attempts, while center Omer Asik scored season-high of his own with 15 points and pulled down 13 rebounds.
“When one guy goes down, the next has to step up,” Frazier said. “Today you saw Omer and everyone else just make this a full team contribution to win this game tonight.”
It briefly erased the pall that was cast over the Smoothie King Center before the opening tip.
New Orleans holds the league’s sixth-worst record, and while talks of “tanking” won’t come from anyone affiliated with franchise in an official capacity, the Pelicans record is now referred to in terms of draft position rather than playoff potential.
Without Davis, the odds of staying in that No. 6 position are significantly more likely. However, games like Sunday’s showed the remaining healthy bodies on the Pelicans’ roster are more concerned with finishing the season than improving lottery odds.
“I think it just shows our heart,” Holiday said. “It shows what kind of competitiveness that we have. We’re obviously growing as a team. When two big players go down like that, other people do step up.”