For these New Orleans Pelicans, every turned corner reveals a closed road.
This week crystallized that image. Just when the Pelicans appeared ready to wear the label of contender, they’ll instead return home from a three-game road trip carrying the same doubts they departed with.
And all of those judgements are rooted in the same principle: This team can’t harness what makes them great.
Never was it more striking than this week.
An inspired comeback win over the Knicks on Sunday set the table for their stunning 116-113 overtime victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday.
After 43 games of pondering their capabilities, the Pelicans’ potential appeared to finally shine across the horizon, catching unsuspecting eyes in the process.
And it was bright.
They beat Boston — the Eastern Conference’s best team — at home, at full strength, on full rest.
Within 24 hours, the supernova burned itself out.
A day later, the Pelicans blew a 19-point lead to the last-placed Atlanta Hawks en route to a 94-93 loss.
And the wheel keeps turning.
New Orleans has still not built a winning streak longer than three games, and every time the Pelicans appear ready to mount a charge toward the upper half of the Western Conference, a pushover opponent pushes them over.
This time, it was the Hawks (now 13-31). Last week, it was the Grizzlies (15-28).
Before that, the Mavericks (15-30) on Dec. 29. And preceding them were the Kings (13-30) on Dec. 8. And don’t forget about the Magic (13-31) on Oct 30.
Those five teams stand among the six worst in the NBA. It is neither a trend or a pattern. Right now, it is the Pelicans’ truth.
This team can’t sustain its success. And there’s no more baffling nemesis than this collection of lottery hopefuls.
Taken individually, you can come up with logical explanations for each of those losses. You could point to the Pelicans' rest disadvantage in Atlanta, or the hot shooting by Dallas, or Anthony Davis' absence in Memphis.
But this is more than a clunker or two. These are objectively bad opponents, with the records to prove it, who possess significantly less top-end talent, but have taken their turns chalking up wins over the Pelicans.
Make no mistake, the Pelicans are in the playoff mix, and many of their goals are well within reach. But if they had simply handled even some of these games against also-rans, New Orleans would be stride-for-stride for homecourt advantage rather than mired in a four-team logjam battling for the West’s final three spots.
The path to a 50-win season typically comes on the backs of these opponents. Split against the good teams and bounce the easy ones.
But they just can’t seem to follow the formula yet. Those losses are the symptom of inconsistency, not the root of the problem.
Certainly the Pelicans’ lack of depth is taxing on its stars. And it’s why several sources indicate New Orleans is much more likely to be a buyer than a seller as the trade deadline approaches in the coming weeks.
The rotation is bereft of a third big man, limiting the minutes DeMarcus Cousins and Davis spend as a pair, which minimizes their enormous mismatch opportunities. Perhaps an additional wing could help shore up their matchup problems or another point guard could steady their perimeter defense.
It’s not entirely clear what the Pelicans, and there are limited assets to acquire the solutions.
But it’s obvious the Pelicans are close. Tantalizingly close. Frustratingly close. Maddeningly close.
And after six seasons without recording a single playoff win, the Pelicans know this collection of top-end talent provides a rare opportunity to cash in.
All of this conjures the image of sand running through fingers. Every time the turning point appears within the Pelicans’ grasp, by the time they look down, it’s gone.
A four-game winning streak would've been a quiet milestone on its own. Sweeping through that three-game trip would’ve been an emphatic proclamation to the NBA that they’re a legitimate threat.
Beating Boston was the kind of attention-grabbing headline capable of shaking this city out of its NBA malaise, potentially eliciting some vigor into the Smoothie King Center for the second half of the season.
Silencing a raucous TD Garden, site of the league’s second-best home record, was the kind of moment the Pelicans had waited for. While their home wins over the Cavaliers and Spurs were quality performances, this was the true head-turner.
And unlike the four blown leads squandered in losses to Golden State and Houston, New Orleans absorbed the hits from an elite opponent and displayed the moxie of a playoff disruptor.
Tuesday's win at Boston, coupled with Davis’ standout 45-point performance, prompted the media to take a rare look at these Pelicans. It even caught the eye of fickle locals, who flipped their focus to hoops following the Saints’ playoff exit Sunday.
But what happened Wednesday momentarily stopped the momentum in its tracks.
Instead, another detour. This time in a nearly empty arena, on a regional broadcast, against the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, there’s still ample time and potential to find open road.
But the breakthrough has yet to come.