Pelicans coach Monty Williams has said he’s spent much of this season managing his players’ emotions.
However, Williams said he didn’t have to draw from that experience much after the Pelicans’ playoff hopes were dampened in Wednesday night’s heart-wrenching loss to the Houston Rockets. MVP candidate James Harden shredded the Pelicans with 25 points and 10 assists as the Rockets celebrated center Dwight Howard’s return with a victory at the Smoothie King Center.
It was the fourth loss in a row for the Pelicans (37-34).
“You lose four games in a row, there should be no (need for) motivation at all,” Williams said. “You want to get a win and you want to start playing the right way more consistently.
“They really want a winning record. We know we want to make the playoffs. We’re making it tough on ourselves dropping games.”
After the game, Anthony Davis stayed on the court until he made 100 free throws, blaming himself for missing eight in the two-point loss. Small forward Quincy Pondexter said the loss could be laid at his feet because he didn’t play good defense. And, point guard Tyreke Evans left questioning why the Pelicans did not adjust to a Rockets’ strategy that the team has seen.
“We have to figure out a way to get wins,” Davis said Wednesday night, obviously frustrated. “We have a tough Sacramento team coming in on Friday. We have to figure out how to get that one and take it a game at a time.”
The Kings (26-45), the second game of a do-or-die three-game home stand, represent part of what has gone wrong with the Pelicans this season. New Orleans has lost six home games to teams with losing records, part of 13 losses overall to losing teams. Among those is a 99-89 setback to Sacramento on Nov. 25. However, that was before the Pelicans obtained forward Dante Cunningham, Pondexter and, of late, point guard Norris Cole, putting them in the playoff chase.
The Kings are not the same team, either. The first 15 games after George Karl was hired as coach on Feb. 17, they went 4-11 as he implemented his up-tempo basketball. To facilitate that, he took 6-foot-11, 250-pound power forward Jason Thompson out of the starting lineup, moved small forward Rudy Gay to power forward and inserted at small forward 6-9 Omri Casspi, a skilled offensive player.
The Kings have won their past four games, helping the 10th-place Pelicans with a win at ninth-place Phoenix on Wednesday.
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (23.8 points, 12.3 rebounds per game) usually presents problems to New Orleans. However, a quicker, more athletic lineup also may be a concern.
The Rockets were very effective trapping Pelicans guards Evans and Eric Gordon high on the perimeter, resulting in missed jump shots by teammates that got Houston’s fastbreak going and turned the game in its favor. Others, most notably the Dallas Mavericks, have had similar success.
Evans said the Pelicans should try to exploit traps and perimeter gambling with cuts and drives to the basket. However, Williams said Houston’s success was due to a lack of execution by his team.
“We’ve had teams trap us before,” he said. “We get corner 3s out of that, pick teams apart.”
However, the Rockets had gone to a smaller lineup, and the Pelicans countered with Cunningham at center to keep pace. He’s used to a different role than center Omer Asik, Williams said, and that hurt their execution.
The Pelicans also have gotten off to fast starts in games during the losing streak, only to see teams catch up in the second quarter or second half.
“Our bench hasn’t given us the same production that it did during that (five-game winning streak) stretch when Anthony was out,” Williams said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s just that. We have to be a better executing team.”
At this time of the season, though, teams know a lot more about opponents’ plays, he said.
The past four games have shown how difficult the final stretch can be for a novice playoff contender. With 11 games left and the Pelicans 3 ½ games out of a playoff berth, Evans, though, said he remains encouraged.
“If we quit, we won’t ever have a chance to be in the playoff or be one of those teams,” he said. “I believe we sill have a chance, with the games coming up, with the teams that’s playing. We just have to take care of business at home.”