When the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves came to town last week, that was a fun time for the New Orleans Pelicans and their fans — with plenty of scoring and highlights in two easy victories.
On the heels of that awaits a four-game road swing that has been tough in past seasons. The trip, which begins Monday, consists of two sets of back-to-back games sandwiched around two open days.
First up is Monday night at the Portland (7-3), where New Orleans has lost six in a row. The Pelicans (5-3) play Sacramento on Tuesday and end the week at Denver and Utah.
“We feel we can compete with anybody,” coach Monty Williams said. “The key is to play 48 minutes. You can’t play 45 minutes or have a really bad quarter defensively or offensively. You’ve got to just be steady and make sure your focus is to do whatever it takes to win the game.”
The game will feature a big matchup of two of the NBA’s best power forwards: the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge.
Davis, who is second in the league in rebounding (11.8 per game) and first in blocked shots (4.13) and who averages 24.5 points (fourth), is having the most impressive start to the season of any of the league’s players. Last season, Aldridge began being mentioned as an MVP candidate when he helped get Portland to the best record in the league in the early going.
“I love going against LaMarcus,” Davis said. “He definitely brings out the best in me defensively and offensively. He has all the tricks in the post, he shoots the ball very well, his mid-range. And,he’s extended his range to the 3 now.”
Aldridge (21.9 points, 7.9 rebounds) sat out Saturday’s game against Brooklyn with flu-like symptoms but is expected to return against the Pelicans. Small forward Nicolas Batum has missed the past three games with a bruised right knee. He has been a big factor with his scoring, rebounding and defense.
Portland has won its past four games. Not among those is a 101-82 home victory Nov. 4 against Cleveland in which LeBron James didn’t score in the second half and Kyrie Irving was held to 3-of-17 shooting by point guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard has averaged 26.3 points and 50.7 percent shooting in three games against New Orleans. But Portland’s big-man rotation of centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman, both of whom each played a season in New Orleans, as well as 7-foot-1 power forward/center Meyers Leonard and center Joel Freeland allow them to play more physical than in the past.
“They’re deeper than they were last season,” Williams said. “And anytime you have Lillard and Aldridge, you have a chance to win.”
The Pelicans’ big-man challenge continues the next night at Sacramento against the improved Kings. The Kings (6-4) are coming off a 94-91 home victory against San Antonio in which center DeMarcus Cousins had 25 points and 10 rebounds.
“He’s matured a lot from what I’ve seen in USA Basketball and the start of the season,” said Davis, one of the stars of that team and a former Kentucky star, like Cousins. “One of our standards going into the World Cup was to make sure we didn’t get technicals. The refs didn’t know us; we were in their league. We wanted to respect the refs and keep playing.”
The Pelicans increasingly have shown the ability to score, although the past two games against the Lakers, a poor defensive team, and the Timberwolves, who didn’t bother to show up, shouldn’t be used as a gauge. But better ball movement has resulted in more open shots. That is definitely something the Pelicans want to take on the road.
“It makes the defense have to guard everybody and not be able to focus on one or two guys,” Davis said.
NOTES: New Orleans’ most recent win at Portland was 97-76 on Nov. 26, 2010. ... Luke Babbitt, who shot 4-of-4 on 3-pointers against Minnesota, played three seasons with Portland. … Kaman played for New Orleans in 2011-12, averaging 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Lopez played in 2012-13, averaging 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. … Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette played for the Kings, and Ryan Anderson is from Sacramento.