It hasn’t unfolded the way anyone affiliated with the franchise expected, but the Pelicans are back in the playoff hunt.
New Orleans has won six of its past eight games, blemished only by a pair of losses totaling three combined points, and ended Thursday night just three games back of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. It’s the closest the Pelicans have been to a playoff spot since Nov. 25, when they were 4-11.
It’s a similar circumstance that the Pelicans were in at this time last season when they finished January 2 1/2 games behind the Phoenix Suns outside of the playoff picture. Then an 18-11 spurt to the end of the regular season helped New Orleans clinch its first playoff berth since the 2010-11 season.
However, this time, instead of jockeying with a banged-up Oklahoma City and fading Phoenix, the Pelicans (17-28) are chasing down four teams. Portland, Utah, Sacramento and Denver each entered Friday with superior winning percentages to New Orleans, but are at least five games below-.500.
“I mean, we are always kind of thinking about the playoffs,” point guard Jrue Holiday said earlier in the week. “That’s always on our minds but we know there’s only so much we can control. But it’s always the goal.”
It’s more likely to see Omer Asik on a list featuring bad contracts than one of good centers these days.
And while the Pelicans 7-footer isn’t a nightly presence down the stretch or a highlight-producer, he’s been effective when New Orleans has needed him to slow down big men in the post. He was particularly useful in a pair of wins over Sacramento this month, keeping Kings’ All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins in check.
While Cousins has torched the rest of the league, including headline-grabbing totals of 56 and 48 points in separate games within the past week, Cousins was held to 26 points on 26 shots in New Orleans’ 114-105 win over the Kings on Thursday. It was a praise-worthy event for the short-handed Pelicans, who played without shot-blocking specialist Anthony Davis in the post.
That defensive effort started with Asik, who logged nearly 27 minutes and finished with 13 rebounds and four blocks. It was the second-most minutes he played in a game this season, trailing only the 29 he completed in a 109-97 win at Sacramento on Jan. 13 when he helped limit Cousins to just 32 points on 30 attempts.
“Omer played great tonight,” former Ryan Anderson said Thursday. “He really had a great night, playing defense because DeMarcus is probably right now the best player in the NBA. Not only statistically, but just his dominance. So, to be able to contain him, even though he had a pretty good night, compared to what he’s been doing lately he really stepped up and did a great job on him.”
The Pelicans have not yet decided whether Anthony Davis is ready to return to the floor following the concussion he suffered Monday night, but coach Alvin Gentry was optimistic Thursday night.
Davis was forced to leave the floor after teammate Tyreke Evans collided with Davis in midair, accidentally driving his elbow into Davis’ temple and knocking him out for the second half of a loss to the Rockets and keeping him sidelined during Thursday’s win over Sacramento.
Gentry said Davis passed two of the four steps of the concussion protocol before Thursday’s game but his status for Saturday’s home contest against Brooklyn is still uncertain.
“You just have to go through the proper channels,” Gentry said. “It wasn’t going to be enough time that would pass (to allow Davis to play on Thursday), so no matter how great he felt, and I think he feels really good and he could play, you have to go through the proper channels.
“I agree totally with what’s going on, considering everything that happened as far as the concussion thing, I think you have to err on the side of being really, really cautious so we understood right away that he wasn’t going to play (Thursday).”
There’s one number Alvin Gentry looks for when he picks up a postgame box score to indicate whether the Pelicans played the way he wanted.
The Pelicans are 10-4 this season when dishing at least 25 assists in a game.
“The mark for us is 25 assists,” Gentry said. “If we can get to 25 assists, then that means we shared the ball and moved the ball and got ourselves good shots. It means we were looking for our shooters.”