Sliding toward the bottom of the standings and piling up more prolonged injuries than significant wins, the Pelicans are firmly squeezed into the NBA’s midseason purgatory.
On Wednesday night, New Orleans took the first step toward climbing out, winning a 100-96 contest over the red-hot Utah Jazz at the Smoothie King Center, snapping Utah’s seven-game winning streak thanks to a balanced scoring effort and a fourth-quarter surge.
Despite trailing by seven entering the final period, New Orleans was able to take advantage of Utah’s sloppy ball-handling, forcing 17 turnovers and Jrue Holiday’s scoring binge which pushed him to a team-high 21 points.
Anthony Davis, who started the game as sluggishly as he has all season, made up for it at the finish by converting a 3-pointer from the wing with 35 seconds remaining to push New Orleans out to a 97-93 lead and then pulled down a defensive rebound with 10.5 seconds, to secure a much-needed home victory.
“I feel like as a leader of the team, it’s my responsibility to pick it up even when I’m struggling,” Davis said. “If somebody has it going, then of course I’ll keep feeding them, but at some point in time I have to take over the game.”
It was the Pelicans’ second consecutive win, following a 116-102 victory over Minnesota on Monday night. This was more significant, considering it was the ninth win (in 34 games) over an opponent who’s currently better than .500.
It also shaved Utah’s advantage over the Pelicans by a game in the Western Conference standings, in the bunched-up chase for the final playoff spot.
With the week-long All-Star break approaching on Friday, the Pelicans still find themselves in a dire spot, trailing the Rockets by six games for the No. 8 seed. It’s particularly daunting considering news came down on Wednesday that point guard Tyreke Evans is likely to miss the remainder of the season due to knee surgery.
Coach Alvin Gentry, however, declined to offer his team sympathy and claimed there’s only one way to climb out of it.
“If you’re a competitor, you compete,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t matter where you are record-wise, or anything like that. There’s going to be teams that go through what we’re going through right now. To me, the question is how do you dig yourself out?
“Do we come back and play our butts off for the remaining part of the schedule and just see what happens if that goes on? Or do we come back and kind of go through the motions?”
On Wednesday, the Pelicans answer was adamant.
Despite surrendering an 11-0 Jazz run midway through the first quarter, New Orleans chipped away to take a 33-32 lead in the first six minutes of the second quarter.
This was even with Davis being held nearly silent in the opening half. The Pelicans’ lone All-Star scored just three points and converted one field goal in the first 30 minutes.
He was part of a scuffling starting five, which converted just seven of its first 17 shots.
The Pelicans bench carried them to a 47-45 first-half advantage thanks to 12-of-22 from the field, and every reserve going to the locker room with a positive in the plus-minus. It helped provide remarkably even scoring distribution with no Pelicans player reaching double digits until late in the third quarter.
“We are just getting out and getting running with that second unit,” reserve guard Toney Douglas said. “Me and Jrue are just trying to get steals and easy buckets. It’s fun. It’s how we need to play with that speed.”
However, the Pelicans halftime advantage quickly disappeared under an avalanche of Jazz baskets. Utah connected on 12 of its 15 attempts in the third quarter, its best statistical period of the season, to wrestle a 77-71 advantage entering the fourth.
From that point forward, the Pelicans were able to get Davis involved, utilizing him on a series of screen-and-rolls to the basket which allowed him several lob opportunities as well as multiple trips to the free throw line.
Still, there’s no rest for the weary or those climbing out of a hole.
Less than 24 hours following its win over Utah, the Pelicans will test its momentum by tipping off in Oklahoma City at 7 p.m. to face the equally hot Thunder who has won of its past 10 games.
“It’s what the schedule says and it’s what we have to do,” Gentry said. “We face one of the hottest teams in the league and then we get on the plane and fly one of the other hottest teams in the league. It’s just what the schedule calls for, so it’s what we have to go do.”