When the New Orleans Pelicans slipped past the defending NBA champion Spurs on Nov. 8 at San Antonio, it was a victory brimming with hope.
Key players Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson had missed more than half of the previous season with injuries, and the Pelicans brought in a new center in Omer Asik and had new reserve players.
The team had high hopes but certainly was unsure of itself.
“For us, it was a big win,” coach Monty Williams said. “For them, it was just another game. So it just tells where we are as a franchise. We need wins like that one to give us confidence and also allow us to believe we can beat the best teams in the league on any given night.”
On Friday at Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans (14-14) again play the Spurs, 18-11 heading into their Christmas Day game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That Pelicans win in November at San Antonio was the first of four this season against teams bidding for a spot in the NBA Finals, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City at home and the Houston Rockets and Thunder on the road.
Even before beating those teams, New Orleans had an encouraging 2-2 mark during a Western Conference road swing that Williams said in large part was because of winning in San Antonio.
“I’m certain that it did help, even if we didn’t realize it, to be able to go to a place like that and win on the road, down the stretch, last-second shot,” he said. “I’m sure that gave us some confidence.
“At the same time, we’ve been able to pile up some other wins against really good teams.”
Another win against the Spurs would be even more impressive than the first one, which came with all five San Antonio starters and most of its bench players healthy. A victory Friday night, however, would mark the first time since the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season that the franchise would have won consecutive regular-season games against the Spurs. New Orleans did win the first two games of its 2008 second-round playoff series against the Spurs.
Before beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday in San Antonio, the Spurs had lost four consecutive games between Dec. 15-20 as key players Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard sat out with injuries or to rest. Small forward Leonard had sat out the past four games with a bruised right hand and is out for Oklahoma City, also. Point guard Tony Parker returned after being out a week with a strained left hamstring.
However, coach Gregg Popovich, obviously more concerned with the postseason, shrugged off the losses.
But the game comes at a time when the Pelicans are facing a team Williams and General Manager Dell Demps regard as their team’s model for sustained success.
“What we’re looking for now is just consistency, and in doing that, sticking to our identity, which is what San Antonio does every night, ” Williams said. “Share the basketball, defend the way we did in OKC (on Tuesday). For us, it’s got to be a lifestyle and not a diet, and we’re going to continue to pound the rock until we get that.”
The Pelicans were fortunate to escape in the first game 100-99. Anthony Davis drove for a basket with 6.6 seconds left that gave New Orleans the lead. However, the Pelicans were not able to secure the victory until Leonard missed two free throws in the final seconds.
After Friday’s game, the Pelicans turn around and play at Chicago on Saturday. It will be Davis’ first time playing against his hometown team after a concussion in his rookie year and broken hand last season prevented him from going against the Bulls in Chicago. He did play there with the USA basketball team in August as it prepared for the World Cup.
The Bulls (19-9) lead the Central Division, are fourth in the East and had won their past four games heading into Thursday’s games, as star point guard Derrick Rose returned after sitting out with continued knee ailments.
It will mark the fourth of five back-to-back games the Pelicans will have played in December. New Orleans is 3-3 in the three sets thus far, having lost the first game twice.
The Pelicans are ninth in the Western Conference playoff race, having been passed by the Phoenix Suns (16-14), who won their past four games. … New Orleans swept both games from Chicago last season, including a 131-128 triple-overtime win in Chicago on Dec. 2 in which Ryan Anderson picked up the slack from Davis being out by scoring 36 points, including 7-of-11 shooting on 3-point attempts. … The Pelicans 7-6 in December. After the Chicago game, they end the month with a back-to-back at home against Phoenix on Dec. 30 and at San Antonio on New Year’s Eve.