It was a game the New Orleans Pelicans had to have against a team they’d beaten both times they’d played this season.
However, the bewildered Pelicans were beaten by the Houston Rockets 95-93 on Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans trailed by 11 points midway of the quarter only to battle back. With 1.7 seconds left, Eric Gordon made the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. The Pelicans got the offensive rebound, but Tyreke Evans’ desperation 19-footer was short. It came after New Orleans had led by 17 points early in the second quarter, the blown lead being its largest of the season.
“(The Rockets) started making shots,” Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis said. “James (Harden) was getting to the basket, finishing around the rim. When we tried to step up him, he made the right plays.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale said his team began attacking the basket, as evidenced by 62 points in the lane — 20 on the fast break — to 38 by the Pelicans.
“We started playing north and south instead of east and west,” said McHale, whose team outscored the Pelicans 59-36 in the middle two quarters in seizing control. “We began making shots, then getting stops.”
It was the fourth loss in a row for New Orleans (37-34), which had dropped three on a Western road trip, and came with little margin for error. The Pelicans, in 10th place in the Western Conference playoff race, trailed Oklahoma City by 3½ games entering the game and have just 11 remaining to make up ground against a surly veteran team that has gone deep into the postseason.
The loss came although New Orleans turned the ball over just 13 times. However, they missed 10 of 28 free throws. Although he had 24 points and 14 rebounds, Davis missed six of 14 free throws. He stayed on the court after the game until he made 100.
“I don’t like missing eight free throws,” he said. “We lost the game by two points. If I make my free throws, we win by six.”
Davis appeared to re-injure his right shoulder when he tipped away a long pass intended for Corey Brewer then collided with Brewer at 6:34 of the fourth. He left the game but returned at 4:28 after Evans’ drive cut the lead to 91-85.
Evans had 28 points but against the Rockets’ trapping defense, the Pelicans were taken out of their rhythm after the first quarter. Quincy Pondexter scored 10 points, but no other Pelican scored in double figures.
Evans had 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting and five assists at halftime but went 3-of-9 with two assists in the second half, as the Rockets’ trapping got the ball out of his hands.
“They denied me a lot” after the first quarter, he said. “Corey Brewer – they did a good job of gambling. But that’s when we have to attack the basket, and I don’t think we did a good job of that.”
After leading by 17 points in the first quarter, the Pelicans watched as the Rockets turned the tables in the second, coming to 52-49 at halftime. Houston did so by pounding the boards, outrebounding New Orleans 16-4 in the quarter. Motiejunas (five), Ariza and Harden (four each) combined for 13 of the rebounds.
Holding the Pelicans to 6-of-20 shooting, the Rockets scored 12 fast-break points, a big part of their 22 points in the lane in the quarter.
In the first quarter, the Pelicans were able to get on the break due to their defense. In the second quarter, however, Houston began making shots and were able set its defense, trapping guards Evans and Gordon outside. The Pelicans turned to jump shots, making just one of five 3-point attempts, and that fueled Houston’s break.
The Pelicans still led at halftime but were outscored 30-18 in the second.
The rebounding in the second quarter got Ariza going offensively in the third. He scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, 3-of-4 on 3s in staking Houston to a 70-63 lead by the 4:32 mark. Harden joined in with 10 points and six assists in the quarter, the Pelicans unable to stop his drives.
The Pelicans shot 75 percent (15-of-20) in taking a 34-19 at the end of the first quarter. Evans shot 6-of-6, including two 3-pointers, in scoring 12 points. New Orleans led 38-21 a minute and a half into the second.
Forward Ryan Anderson received a custom-made brace for his sprained right knee on Wednesday. It replaces a sleeve he has been wearing during rehab. Anderson, who has been out since Feb. 21, said he hoped to play in a week but was not sure that would happen. He said he has been doing more lateral exercises of late and increasing his work load.