Maybe there’s something to be gained from losing.
Maybe the Pelicans’ 121-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center was something of a win. Maybe a better chance to jump up in the NBA draft in June is worth getting beaten down in April.
That’s not exactly how New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry sees it.
“We’re going to play to win every game,” Gentry said afterward. “Whatever happens with the lottery happens with the lottery, but we’re going to play to win every game. Tonight, I thought the effort was there. I just think mentally we were beaten down.”
It was the Pelicans’ fourth game in five nights — they’ll play another Monday, their home finale against the Chicago Bulls — and that with a roster that’s been depleted by injury.
And so, even against a Phoenix team with the league’s third-worst record, the Pelicans looked flat and got flattened, never leading and trailing by as many as 28 points in the fourth quarter.
“We played hard, we just didn’t have it tonight energy-wise,” said guard Toney Douglas, who led New Orleans with 23 points and had five assists. “Probably fatigued a little bit.
“It happens,” Douglas said, to a team playing on back-to-back nights — the Pelicans beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday in a Smoothie King Center electrified by Kobe Bryant’s final game in New Orleans — and for the fifth time in seven days.
The buzz from the Lakers game was absent Saturday, when there were large patches of empty seats in the lower and upper arena. The crowd was listed at 16,932 but looked significantly smaller.
Meanwhile, the Suns brought their own energy. They led 32-22 after one quarter and 55-47 at the half, then opened things up in the third quarter.
Phoenix opened the third quarter on a 12-4 run, taking a 67-51 lead on two free throws from Chandler. After New Orleans cut the lead to 69-58 on Babbitt’s driving layup with 5:39 to play in the third, Phoenix ripped off a 15-6 run, taking a an 84-64 lead on John Jenkins’ jumper with 1:32 to play in the quarter.
The Suns led 85-67 entering the fourth quarter, and their lead peaked at 117-89 on a pair of Jon Leuer free throws with 2:25 to play in the game.
Archie Goodwin had 24 points and Mizra Teletovic 22 points, five rebounds and four assists for Phoenix.
The Pelicans got 18 points from James Ennis, 17 from Luke Babbitt, 13 each from Jordan Hamilton and Dante Cunningham, and 11 from Tim Frazier.
New Orleans center Alexis Ajinca had four points and four rebounds a night after setting career highs with 28 points and 15 rebounds against the Lakers, and he left the game in the second half with a right shoulder injury and did not return.
The Pelicans are without nine players, at least seven of whom are out for the season. But their losses — in personnel and on the court — might be too little too late to mean much in the NBA draft lottery.
New Orleans ended its Saturday night with the NBA’s sixth-worst record, and with three games remaining, the Pelicans are unlikely to make a significant move down the standings.
With three games to play, New Orleans’ 30 wins are three more than Minnesota, which has the league’s fifth-worst record, and nine more than Brooklyn, which has the fourth-worst mark in the NBA.
Wins still could move the Pelicans up the standings — the have one fewer win than the Sacramento Kings and two fewer than the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks — and reduce their chances at a top-three pick in June.
But the Pelicans have long insisted they’re playing to establish as best they can a winning culture for next season. They weren’t laying down on Saturday. They just didn’t have the energy to stay up.
“It’s tough, but that’s the NBA,” Frazier said. “You go through games and series like this where you got to play four games in five nights, five games in seven nights. The toughest survive. That’s what the summer’s for, to prepare yourself for it.”