The playoff prize is all but out of reach these days for the Pelicans.
That doesn’t mean New Orleans is ready to stop reaching for it.
As they prepare to face the Grizzlies on Friday in Memphis, the Pelicans are the longest of shots to reach the NBA Playoffs.
On the court, meanwhile, New Orleans continues to show some life. The Pelicans rallied from 17 points down — and 10 back in the fourth quarter — to beat Sacramento at home on Monday, then rallied from 17 down again to tie the Hornets on Wednesday before losing in Charlotte.
“We’re competitors,” forward Dante Cunningham said this week. “That’s why we’re here. We’re not packing it in because we possibly can’t make the playoffs.”
Mathematically, the Pelicans aren’t out of the playoff picture yet. Philadelphia and the Lakers are the only teams officially eliminated from the race.
But at the Pelicans entered Thursday at 24-39, 7½ games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. With 19 games to play and three teams between New Orleans and the eight-place Houston Rockets, the odds are long.
On Thursday, both ESPN and FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Pelicans a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs.
“We’re going to keep playing no matter what the score is or what the situation is or playoffs or no playoffs, whatever,” said forward Anthony Davis, who had 40 points in Wednesday’s loss to Charlotte. “We’re going to keep playing, and when you do that, good things tend to happen.”
Whether winning is a good thing is a legitimate question these days in New Orleans.
In projecting the Pelicans to finish 33-49, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index on Thursday gave them a 13.8 percent chance of landing a top-three pick in the NBA Draft lottery. On paper, a draft considered top-heavy is an incentive for continued losing.
In the locker room, though, the Pelicans insist they’re not ready to pack it in.
“We don’t have any quit,” guard Norris Cole said. “When you play in the NBA, you have to have some type of competitive nature, no matter what, whether you’re the best team in the league or the worst team in the league. You have to be competitive in this league in order to last.”
The Pelicans are 4-6 in their last 10 games. Ten of their final 19 games — including Friday’s at injury-depleted Memphis — are against teams with records of .500 or better, and New Orleans is 10-28 against such teams this season.
But until they’re eliminated from the playoffs — and ultimately, even after that — the Pelicans say there are reasons beyond this season to keep competing.
“We still want to play good basketball,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We’re still trying to win basketball games. I don’t think anything can replace winning, and if you want to establish a culture, there’s nothing more important than winning.”