It’s a work in progress.
Just 40 hours after learning All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins would miss the remainder of the season, the reconfigured New Orleans Pelicans took the floor for the first time without him.
What looked like an easy transition in the early going eventually revealed how long the learning curve might be. A 21-point lead disappeared in less than a quarter, as the Los Angeles Clippers dominated the second half en route to a 112-103 win at the Smoothie King Center.
It marked the Pelicans' first loss in five games, but in many ways, this one felt like the start of a new season.
"If we win today, we're not going to think we've got it figured out,” coach Alvin Gentry said before the tip. "If we lose today, then we're not going to think the world's coming to an end. We're not dead. We just lost a good player."
But for a few stretches, it looked like the Pelicans might need to be re-birthed to maintain their playoff status.
Without Cousins to pull away defenders’ attention, the Clippers keyed on Anthony Davis and didn’t allow him many clean looks at the rim, forcing the Pelicans offense to attack from the outside.
“He’s not going to play against two or three guys, and that’s the challenge right now without DeMarcus out there,” Gentry said. “So, he has two or three guys on him, and he’s making the right basketball play.”
But many of the shots Davis created failed to fall.
As the once-big lead slipped away, New Orleans missed 11 consecutive 3-pointers. They finished just 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) from beyond the arc, and seven of those makes came during a first-half flurry.
“I think we got a lot of good, wide-open shots that we want to take,” Jrue Holiday said. “I think they all missed short because I think our legs were a little sluggish.”
It would stand to reason. Davis logged 41 minutes, tallying 25 points and 17 rebounds, while Holiday played 37 minutes, scoring 20.
It’s a new reality for the Pelicans, who already leaned heavily on their stars, but the burden of responsibility is distributed between two men instead of among three.
“If he’s tired, he tells me,” Gentry said of Davis’ extended workload. “I would like to play him 28 minutes, but that’s not feasible to do when you have an opportunity to win. That’s just the way it is.”
The icy shooting in the second half was precisely what the Pelicans couldn’t afford as Clippers star Blake Griffin heated up. And Griffin never slowed down, burying the dagger 3-pointer in the final minute to put the Clippers up three possessions and ending any hopes at a last-gasp run.
“The shots were open and we usually make those shots, but that’s just how it goes sometimes,” guard Ian Clark said. “I think we let it affect us some at the other end, too, and we can’t let that happen. I think part of what happened in the third quarter is we got in our heads and we didn’t play the rest of the game the right way with the right intensity.”
For many fans in the Smoothie King Center, some of the lineups likely prompted a second or third glance down at the floor.
Gentry’s decision to stagger Davis and Holiday’s minutes ensured one or the other would be on the floor at all times. It’s the same tactic he employed for Cousins and Davis, but without Cousins, it left some unique groupings learning to play together.
For example, late in the first quarter Holiday was joined by DeAndre Liggins, Omer Asik, Ian Clark and Darius Miller. It’s the first time that group has taken the floor this season.
But, the unorthodox look actually proved successful, outscoring L.A. by 10 points over eight minutes in first and second quarters and extending New Orleans' lead.
Davis played the whole second half, so that group didn't play together for the remainder of the game, but it was at least a glimpse into what’s possible.
“We made simple plays,” Clark said. “It was a brand new group, but we showed we can make it work, and with some practice time, it can get a lot better.”
Indeed, the Pelicans are forced to regroup and learn their first lesson about life without Cousins.
“It’s one game,” Gentry said. “We are going to go back and make adjustments and see what we can do, and see if we can make it a little bit better.”