The New Orleans Pelicans had just come back from breaking even on their four-game road trip against Western Conference foes, a step forward considering how the team had fared in previous trips of the sort. Facing a home game against Sacramento, the Pelicans were two games over .500 and had a chance to build some momentum.
Now, after a listless performance against the Kings on Tuesday that coach Monty Williams said was the Pelicans’ worst effort of the season, they head on the road with questions about effort and playing the right way for two games against dangerous foes.
The Pelicans (7-6) play the Atlanta Hawks (7-6) on Friday night, then visit the Washington Wizards (9-5) on Saturday.
“We played (Atlanta) in the preseason,” Williams said. “We feel we matched up well against them. At the same time, this is more about us than anything. We have to get back to bringing that hard-hat juice we’re typically known for here. We had a big discussion about (how) we shouldn’t have to coach effort, and the guys to a man agreed that wasn’t the kind of effort we want to show our fans and show each other.”
A key part of the Pelicans not playing the right way hinged on not sharing the ball, which resulted in star forward Anthony Davis on Tuesday attempting just 12 shots, making four. In the team meeting, Williams said he wants Davis to get 20 shots per game. He was averaging 18 shots and 26.3 points.
Davis said Wednesday that a lot of that may have been on him. He had flu-like symptoms that had him so weak, he couldn’t talk. On Wednesday night, Davis said he still had a sore throat.
“But that’s no excuse,” he said. “I was on the floor.”
They will go against a Hawks team that is capable of showing the Pelicans the right way. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, a disciple of the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Atlanta ranks fourth in the NBA in assists per game at 24.4. They have assisted on 64 percent of their baskets, which is third in the NBA and leads the Eastern Conference.
“They share the ball and have guys that are versatile,” Williams said. “They have a number of guys who can shoot the ball — (guard) Kyle Korver, (forward Mike) Scott, (power forward Paul) Millsap, (forward DeMarre) Carroll, (point guard Jeff) Teague. They run a lot of San Antonio concepts that you have to have great multiple-effort defensive plays.”
With a relatively small lineup, the Hawks have the quickness to get after foes. In a 106-102 win at Washington on Tuesday, Atlanta forced 25 turnovers and scored 32 points off them. Its ability to get turnovers and hit 3-pointers on the break is a big concern, Williams said.
For the Pelicans, there may have been a diamond in the rough against Sacramento. At the start of the second quarter with the Pelicans trailing by 15, Williams tried a unit he said he hadn’t envisioned putting on the floor together: backup center Jeff Withey, power forward Ryan Anderson, small forward Luke Babbitt and guards Austin Rivers and Jimmer Fredette.
They trimmed the lead to three, and the teams wound up going into halftime tied.
“They played harder, gave us some energy and it kind of sent a message to the team like ‘That’s how we have to play,’ ” Williams said. “Sometimes your starting unit isn’t going to have that kind of juice. I thought (the backups) did a decent job. At the same time, that’s what you want the bench to do. But our starters can’t start the games (trailing 12-2) like that.”
When the Pelicans play the Wizards the next night, it will be the third consecutive time they have had back-to-back road games. The Pelicans lost both games against Washington last season, but both came after they were ravaged by injuries. Nonetheless, the games underscored the Pelicans’ need for a big, strong center: Washington’s Nene and Marcin Gortat were bruising in their effectiveness against them.
NOTES: Nene has missed the past two games with right plantar fasciitis. ... With Wizards guard Bradley Beal out six weeks with a fractured left wrist, Baton Rouge native and former LSU guard Garrett Temple became the starter. He averaged 6.9 points but is known for defense, and Washington went 7-2 before Beal’s return. Temple is still in the starting lineup as Beal works into better shape. … Five Wizards average double figures in scoring: John Wall (19.4), Beal (15.8), Paul Pierce (13.2), Gortat (12.5) and Nene (10.6).