Are there ever any easy outs for the New Orleans Pelicans?
Apparently not, especially when the opponents are from the Eastern Conference.
On ’80s Night at the Smoothie King Center, the 2015 Boston Celtics played like they had Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale on the court instead of Brandon Bass, Tyler Zeller and Jae Crowder.
The result: a 104-98 loss on a night when winning would have meant much.
Instead, there was tying Oklahoma City for eighth place in the West.
There was no matching last year’s victory total of 34 with 20 games left.
And there was no breaking the trend of playing down to teams from the East with losing records. The Pelicans are middling 9-8 against them with one game to go — at Brooklyn on Tuesday, the back end of a back-to-back that starts Monday at Milwaukee.
In and of itself, Friday’s game was not a playoff hope-killer. There’s too much left of this season to say that.
But it was also the kind of game the Pelicans can no longer afford to lose if they want to see their season go beyond mid-April for the first time since 2011.
Especially not with OKC getting otherworldly play from Russell Westbrook to remain the team to beat for that final playoff berth.
The Pelicans never seemed to hit a high energy level Friday. Anthony Davis has never had a quieter 27-point, 14-rebound, three-block evening.
They fell behind by 11 in the second quarter before rallying to tie at halftime. They then dropped back again late in the third period to enter the final quarter trailing 71-68.
And after expanding that lead to double digits in the opening minutes of the period, they were never threatened down the stretch.
What makes it worse is that these Celtics on paper weren’t as good as the ones that beat the Pelicans 108-100 on Jan. 12.
Since then, Boston has shed itself of Rajon Rondo (they already had unloaded Jeff Green to Memphis in the trade that brought Quincy Pondexter to the Pelicans) while picking up Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix, resulting in a younger, faster lineup that seemed a step ahead of the Pelicans all night Friday.
Boston may be only 24-35, but the Celtics are one of five teams within two games of the final two playoff berths in the East. So they were playing with motivation.
Which the Pelicans didn’t always appear to be doing for much of Friday.
There were too many turnovers (19 to the Celtics’ 15), including three traveling calls in the first half. Who gets those in the NBA anymore?
There was too much negligent play on defense, which led to plenty of open shots and easy baskets for the visitors.
And was too little production from beyond the arc — just one 3-pointer out of four attempts in the first half and 8 of 21 for the game vs. 10 of 23 for the Celtics.
But, as said earlier, it’s far from over. Just not as easy, though.
Of the Pelicans’ 20 remaining games, nine are at home.
Friday’s game was the first of five remaining back-to-backs. The Pels have managed to win both ends only once.
Nine of the remaining games are against teams ahead of them in the West, beginning with Saturday’s game against Memphis.
The Pels are 7-9 against those teams and, with the homecourt advantage that comes with seeding at stake, no one is going to take a night off from here on in.
Of Oklahoma City’s remaining 20 games, 13 are at home, including eight of its next nine.
The Thunder has eight games against teams ahead of it in the West, one less than the Pels. But OKC has three games left against the top three teams in the East: Atlanta, Chicago and Toronto. OKC has four back-to-backs left.
So there’s not a whole lot of difference there.
There’s one area that is different, though.
The Thunder players have muscle memory of what it takes to make the playoffs. The Pelicans don’t.
And it showed on Friday.