ATLANTA — These days, winning games is not the primary objective for the New Orleans Pelicans. With a lost season winding down and injuries mounting, victories have become secondary to getting a good look at some promising young players on the roster.
Still, it would have been nice.
Instead, the Pelicans crumbled down the stretch Sunday night at State Farm Arena, allowing the similarly struggling Atlanta Hawks to pull away for a 128-116 victory.
“I like wins,” forward Julius Randle said. “It’s an unfortunate situation.”
Unfortunate is putting it mildly. Playing without injured guards Jrue Holiday and E’Twuan Moore and with disgruntled megastar Anthony Davis on a 20-minute limit, not to mention battling injuries of his own, the Pelicans (30-39) have lost three in a row and are clearly sinking.
“Between Jrue and AD, that’s 50 points a game we don’t have out there consistently,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We understand that. But there’s a big picture we’ve got to look at also. We want to get guys like Kenrich (Williams) and Frank (Jackson) valuable time on the court. Then from there, hopefully that will translate in the future to something.”
So what did the big picture look like Sunday?
Well, it was good. And it was bad. Just about what one might expect from a thrown-together lineup dotted with inexperience.
On the good side, Jackson, a rookie thrust into a leading role, had a strong outing. He scored 23 points to match Randle for the team high and showed evidence that “the game is starting to slow down for him,” Gentry said.
“It’s about reads,” point guard Elfrid Payton said of Jackson. “Knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass. Knowing when he sees his guys gapping him, to pop back for a 3. He knows when his guy’s chasing him to curl. A lot of little things like that.”
Payton also had his moments, finishing with 10 assists and only one turnover — the Pelicans gave the ball away only eight times, addressing one of Gentry’s major areas of concern.
But the bad was too much to overcome against the Hawks (23-45), who scored 12 consecutive points late in the third quarter to turn an 83-82 deficit into an 11-point lead and poured in 34 points in the fourth to hold it.
The Pelicans did a magnificent job putting a lid on Atlanta’s rising star, rookie Trae Young, who’s been a scoring machine lately. New Orleans held him to 2-for-14 shooting and 10 points. But the Pelicans had no answer for fellow rookie Kevin Huerter, who scored 27 points, just missing his career high of 29.
Huerter was dominant in the final six minutes of the first half, blowing past Payton and European newcomer Dairis Bertans — who made his Pelicans debut in the second quarter — to get to the rim at will and dropping in a couple of 3-pointers. He scored 17 in that span to keep the Hawks in the game.
Still, the Pelicans hung in until their offense vanished with four minutes to go in the third quarter. By the time it returned, they trailed by double digits, and that was that. The defense wasn’t up to the task of a comeback.
“We did a poor job of getting back to the 3-point shooters, of closing them out and running them off their shots,” Gentry said. “Before you know it, they got 17 of them made. … It was at crucial times when we were trying to work our way back in the game.
“You don’t have an opportunity to come back when you’re behind and you’re trading baskets. You have to do it on stops, and we just didn’t do it.”
And for those who are trying to see the big picture but would like to see some wins, the result was another rough night.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Payton said. “Just because of the expectations coming into the season and how we were able to start the season, it’s tough.
“I see the big picture. I like this team. I think we have a lot of talented pieces. But the competitor in me — I want to win, no matter what.”
Davis had 15 points and eight rebounds in about 21 minutes after missing Friday night’s loss to Toronto with back spasms. ... Bertrans, signed out of the EuroLeague on March 2, had one assist in his debut. Gentry said he wanted to "try to get him acclimated to the speed of the game and playing with some of his teammates."
The Associated Press contributed to this report