The Pelicans, along with their star forward, have one final chance before the impending All-Star break to prove to their fans, the national media and basketball fans around the country that have tuned in to watch the circus over the past two weeks, that a growing trend over the past two games is simply an anomaly.
Coming off the team’s two worst offensive performances of the season — to a pair of teams both hovering underneath the .500 mark — Anthony Davis and his band of teammates don’t necessarily have to come away with a win Thursday night at home against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder. But they do have to signal that they care.
“We talked today and had a meeting today and talked about, we have 24 games left and what does that look like? What do we want to be?” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “It comes down to personal pride, what pride do you have as a player and what respect do you have for your teammates? That’s what you have to play for. You play for yourself and the team. That’s what it comes down to.
“You’ve got to be self-motivated, and it’s got to mean something to you.”
During these wild two weeks, Gentry, Davis and the rest of the Pelicans locker room have generally said the right things. The head coach wants to reach a new normal — whatever that may mean over the final two months with his former No. 1 overall pick’s trade demands looming heavily. Davis just wants to play the game he loves, whatever jersey he wears and however a home or opposing crowd may greet him. And the team’s backbone, veteran guard Jrue Holiday, just wants to support those around him — both those who may or may not be around come next October — and win basketball games.
But a game like Thursday’s, up against the current third-best team in the Western Conference, will prove whether those words ring hollow or not. Tuesday’s final result appeared clear just minutes into the first quarter.
After sinking a pair of layups in the first 45 seconds and pulling within a point of the Magic, 7-6, with just over nine minutes left in the first half, New Orleans shot 2-for-18 over the next 8:40 as Orlando sped ahead on a 32-5 run.
All the things Pelicans fans have grown accustomed to seeing a healthy New Orleans squad do — barrel through the paint to draw fouls, jockey for rebound positioning, watch their perennial all-star forward be the team’s source of energy — were glaringly absent, and this time, no series of bursts during the second and third quarters were going to position them within a prayer’s chance of competing come the fourth.
“We sucked,” Davis said. “Nobody was interested in playing it looked like, against a team that’s fighting for a spot. You should expect that.”
But Davis was as guilty as any, sometimes not even making it inside the 3-point line on offense to try and dominate the low block for some easy buckets that could have stopped the bleeding. And eventually, his teammates took notice.
He took just nine shots, making one, giving him three points — Davis’ lowest point total in his career in a game where he played more than 20 minutes.
To prove he was doing more than reciting a script during his post-trade demand meetings with the media in claiming he still wants to finish out this season on the court with New Orleans, Davis will have to create a 180-degree turnaround from Tuesday and hope his teammates follow suit. Beating Russell Westbrook, the 2016-17 MVP, and Paul George, a potential favorite for this year’s honor, will be a tall task, but Gentry said he still trusts he has a group that wants to try.
“I think the guys want to do well. I think we’re still engaged. It’s important for everybody to still win,” he said. “That’s the big thing you want to find out, and for the most part, we’ve competed. Last night, I think you need to flush that down the toilet.”
But Gentry also admitted the Pelicans can’t run away from their disfunction on and off the court. Should they lull through another lackluster performance Thursday, no week away from the facilities for the All-Star break is going to be a cure-all.
“The bottom line is when we come back, everything is still here,” he said. “We have to find a way to compartmentalize it.”