Their current homestand might well determine who the Pelicans are as a team.
One half into it, New Orleans was asked what sort of team it wants to be.
Trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by nine at halftime Tuesday at the Smoothie King Center, New Orleans got a locker-room challenge from coach Alvin Gentry, and the Pelicans responded in the second half of a 114-99.
“(We talked about) did we want to come back in here again and say that another team outworked us?” forward Anthony Davis said in the Pelicans’ locker room after his 35-point game helped fuel a comeback. “That’s what we didn’t want to do. We went out there and got it done.”
The win was New Orleans’ third in four games and perhaps most importantly its first of six straight at home. Minnesota was the first of four teams to visit the Smoothie King Center in the next two weeks with a losing record.
In other words, the time is now if the 14-27 Pelicans, four games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot after Tuesday’s games, hope to make a push into the postseason.
But it was Minnesota (13-30) that looked like the hungrier team early.
The Timberwolves led by as many as 17 points in the first quarter and led 38-25 entering the second.
The Pelicans looked flat-footed early and couldn’t find defensive answers for Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored nine of his 20 points in the first quarter, nor for Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio or Adreian Payne, who scored six each in the first. Wiggins led the Wolves with 21.
“We have to avoid digging ourselves a hole and then playing uphill the rest of the night,” Gentry said. “We got to get the game to a point where, when we play and we play well, we’re extending the lead and not really cutting into a lead.”
But after Towns’ hot start, the Pelicans switched Davis onto the rookie, and as Davis carried the offense — he scored 22 first-half points — New Orleans locked in defensively and chipped away.
Trailing 60-51 at halftime, the Pelicans got a reminder of the game’s significance.
“I just said to them, this is our season,” Gentry said. “We’ll determine if we want to be involved and have a chance to be talked about as a playoff team or we won’t. That’s what it comes down to. It’s that simple.”
It’s a tall task for the Pelicans, who have four teams to vault if they hope to pass Utah for the No. 8 seed in the West.
But they played in the second half like a team hungry to be in the conversation.
New Orleans didn’t take its first lead of the game until the 8:52 mark of the third quarter, but outscored Minnesota 31-15 in the third, holding the Timberwolves to 4-of-13 shooting in the quarter.
A four-point sequence with 6:01 to play in the third — Eric Gordon sank a 3-pointer as Minnesota fouled Davis, who made a free throw — gave New Orleans a 71-70 lead, and the Pelicans led for the remainder of the quarter.
With 2 seconds to play in the third, Jrue Holiday made a pull-up jumper, and Dante Cunningham stole the ensuing inbounds pass, laying it up to beat the buzzer and put New Orleans in front 82-75 entering the fourth.
“I think the game really changed when Dante made that play,” Davis said. “I thought that was the biggest play of the game.”
Holiday scored 19 points and Tyreke Evans 13 for New Orleans, which got 11 each from Cunningham and Gordon, who left the game with a right ring finger injury in the second half and did not return.
Still, the Pelicans surged ahead by 11 early in the fourth quarter and held a double-digit lead for the final 8:26. After their sluggish start, they outscored the Timberwolves 89-61 over the final three quarters to get their homestand off to a rousing start.
“These home games are important to us,” Evans said. “We got to take care of these games at home. We might not win them all, but that’s the goal.”