Before Saturday’s game against Dallas, Pelicans coach Monty Williams spoke about the challenge of competing in the toughest division of the toughest conference of the world’s toughest basketball league — and how his team hasn’t done so for the past three seasons, especially against the Mavericks.
“There are excuses,” he said. “We can talk about our injuries; we can talk about our lineups — they’ve beaten us.
“At some point we’ve got to say, ‘Enough.’ And tonight’s as good a time as any.”
But later, when asked whether Saturday’s game was a measuring stick for where the Pels stand, albeit only two games into the season, Williams said, “We don’t. You guys do. Every game’s the same. We don’t view games that way.”
Whichever way you — or the Pelicans — view it, they came up short against their Southwest Division foes 109-104 before an announced Smoothie King Center crowd of 14,547 that woke up during the home team’s third-quarter rally but ultimately went home disappointed.
“This just shows you how tough the Western Conference is,” said Dallas’ Chandler Parsons, a key free agent acquisition from Houston who led the Mavericks with 20 points.
Indeed it is.
Even with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out for at least a month, the West is a mountain to climb for any team with aspirations of getting into the playoff picture.
Last season, the Pels were 3-13 in their division, 15-37 in the conference. They’ve now lost eight straight to Dallas, dating to their first meeting of the 2012-13 season.
If you want to play past April, you’ve got to do better than that.
So Saturday, with the team completely healthy seemingly for the first time since before Obamacare was approved and well-rested since Tuesday’s rousing 101-84 victory against Orlando in the season opener, was the right time to make a statement against an established contender.
The Pelicans managed to, at least through three quarters which ended with them leading 89-86.
And they got another monster game out of Anthony Davis — 31 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots. Tyreke Evans had a near triple double — 22 points, 10 boards and nine assists — and Jrue Holiday had 24 points.
But the home team couldn’t finish.
The Pels were 4-of-18 from the field in the fourth quarter, missing their last eight shots and getting only free throws after Holiday’s finger roll left them down 101-98 with 6:17 left.
They would get it to a one-possession game once more, but it’s hard to catch up when you’re only scoring one point at a time while getting doing things like Eric Gordon and Evans getting back-to-back offensive fouls.
“They’ve got a ton of veterans and they’re going to get away with a lot of foul calls,” Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson said. “That was in the scouting report, and they forced us to take tough shots.”
The Mavs are a veteran team. Their five starters Saturday had 51 years of NBA experience going into this season. The Pels starters had 22.
That’s a lot of muscle memory come crunch time.
“In the fourth quarter we did some tremendous things,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “That’s important for a team trying to get traction.”
And Carlisle liked that we saw from the Pelicans.
“They’re a young team, but they’ve got some experience,” he said. “They’re going to be a factor in the playoff race — no question about it.”
And among the Pelicans, Anderson at least, wasn’t discouraged.
“We can beat them,” he said. “I think we’re all confident of that.
“If we play like we did in the third quarter, it’s going to be tough for any team to beat us. We’ve just got to play a complete game.”
This being the NBA, where the three days between the opener and Saturday is a rare luxury — there’s only one more such non-All-Star break this season, and it’s next week — the Pelicans will get a quick opportunity to prove that they can.
There’s a trip to yet another division foe — Memphis — on Monday followed by the renamed Charlotte Hornets at home Tuesday in the season’s first back-to-back.
Sweeping those games would be a nice statement.
And if not, well, we’ll be waiting for one.