Before the Pelicans left last week on a five-game road trip, guard Eric Gordon called the 10-day swing “a make-or-break situation.”
But Gordon and the Pelicans returned to New Orleans on Sunday neither truly made nor broken.
The Pelicans went 2-3 on a road swing to Chicago, Portland, Utah, Phoenix and Denver, and though coach Alvin Gentry was furious with the way his team played against the Suns, he saw progress in New Orleans’ other four games.
New Orleans beat Utah and Denver and lost games to Chicago and Portland by a combined eight points.
“In Phoenix, we didn’t deserve to win,” Gentry said in Denver on Sunday. “We didn’t play and didn’t have the energy or the effort. But you go back and look at those two games (against the Bulls and Blazers) and you think about what coulda, woulda, shoulda — which you can’t do — I just think we played well on this road trip when you look at all the games except the Phoenix game.”
Subtract that game against the Suns, and the Pelicans averaged 107.2 points on the road trip, about five more than their season average. They allowed 105.5, about three fewer points than their average.
That’s marginal improvement, which was par for the course on the trip for New Orleans. Over the course of the five-game swing, the Pelicans scored a little more than they have over the course of the season and gave up a little less. Their opponents shot slightly better than they have on the average this season, but hit slightly more 3-pointers.
And though New Orleans’ offensive rating was much-improved on the road trip — the Pelicans averaged 106.8 points per 100 possessions, well above their season average of 102.5 — its defensive rating of 109.3 on the road trip was slightly higher than the 109 points per 100 possessions it’s allowed this season.
Still, Gentry saw encouraging signs. The Pelicans were in every game besides the one in Phoenix.
“We put ourselves in a position where if we continue to do that and then finish the game the right way, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to win,” Gentry said.
For a team that’s been outscored by an average of 11.8 points per game in losses this season, that’s progress — even if it is incremental.
Incremental progress has been a season-long trend for New Orleans, which started an injury-plagued season with 11 losses in its first 12 games and has steadily been more competitive as key pieces return. The Pelicans are 7-8 in their past 15 games.
“I think we’re playing better basketball,” Gentry said. “Obviously getting Tyreke (Evans) back and Jrue (Holiday’s) minutes being extended has been pretty good, and then getting Norris (Cole) back also has helped. But we still have not reached the point of consistency (where) I’d like to see us playing.”
In that 1-11 start, the Pelicans were scoring 99.8 points per 100 possessions and allowing 110. In the 15 games since, they’re scoring 104.8 points per 100 possessions and allowing 108.1.
Those numbers are better, but they aren’t where New Orleans needs to be if it hopes to climb into playoff contention. That defensive rating of 108.1 is only slightly better than the Pelicans’ season average of 109.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks last in the league.
And New Orleans hasn’t made much of a playoff push as its record has improved. At 1-11, the Pelicans were five games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Going into Monday’s games, they were four games behind.
And so a five-game road trip didn’t make or break the Pelicans. But it made it clear that incremental progress will accomplish only so much.
“We can’t take steps back,” forward Anthony Davis said. “We’ve got to continue to move forward.”