Before his New Orleans Pelicans embarked on their just-completed five-game road trip against Eastern Conference teams, coach Monty Williams was asked about his team’s schedule during the season’s first half.
“It’s been brutal, but there’s nothing you can do about the schedule,” he replied. “At some point, it will start to even out. I will say this: I think (the NBA schedule-maker) certainly has a sense of humor.”
The Pelicans (20-21) faced 21 teams currently in playoff position during their first 31 games. During a stretch from December to early January, 14 of 21 games were against such opponents.
And that does not include two games against Oklahoma City, which is ninth in the Western Conference after starting the season with its two top players injured.
But as the Pelicans begin the second half of the season Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers (12-30), they have a chance to make a move.
Of New Orleans’ next 12 games heading into the All-Star break Feb. 12-19, 10 are at home, including six in a row from Sunday through Feb. 4. During the first half of the season, the Pelicans’ longest homestand was three games from Dec. 12-16.
Five of those 12 games are against teams currently not in playoff spots — not including two games against the Thunder. Three of New Orleans’ next four opponents — the Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers — have a combined 27-96 record.
Of course, in the five games on the Eastern Conference swing — four of which were considered winnable — the Pelicans won just two. But that was with point guard Jrue Holiday (right ankle inflammation) missing four of the games and All-Star power forward Anthony Davis (left sprained toe) missing three.
“Our guys have bounced back before,” Williams said. “Lord willing, we’ll get some guys back healthy, and that will settle the (playing) rotation a bit. That’s one of the issues we’ve had: Our rotation has been a bit offbeat because of injuries during this road trip.”
The final 41 games shape up as a battle among the teams in the seventh through 10th spots in the West: San Antonio (26-16), Phoenix (25-18), Oklahoma City (20-20) and the Pelicans, who were a half-game behind the Thunder heading into Tuesday’s games. Denver was two games behind New Orleans.
It’s a pressure-packed situation, with the Spurs the NBA’s defending champions, the Suns having missed the playoff last season despite 48 wins, and the Thunder, one of the best teams in the West, knowing even a non-serious injury can cause them to miss the playoffs.
Of the Pelicans’ final 41 games, 28 wins or more may be needed to make the playoffs — from a team that has not won three games in a row this season.
“We’re trying to compete in the West, and the West is as difficult as it’s been ever,” Williams said. “Every win is precious, and we understand that.”
In the second half, New Orleans plays 23 games at home and 18 on the road — compared to 17 at home and 24 on the road in the first half. Twenty-two of the final 41 are against teams in playoff spots, which puts the Pelicans’ destiny in their hands.
The Pelicans are 14-11 against Western Conference teams, including 8-4 at home. They are 12-5 at home overall. On the road, they are 8-16 — but 6-7 against the West.
Making their move during these next 12 games appears imperative. At the end of the season, the Pelicans will play 10 of their final 15 games away from home.