It was a fairly innocuous play, one that didn’t play have much bearing in the Pelicans’ 130-120 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night — but it more or less summed up the Pelicans' status as a club in limbo for the few remaining games on their schedule.
Earlier in the day, the front office announced that Jrue Holiday, the center of the team’s future, had undergone season-ending surgery on a core muscle that had kept him out of the previous eight games.
E’Twaun Moore continued to recover from a left quad contusion that has kept him out since the first week of March. Anthony Davis sat the bench again, still dealing with back spasms as his Pelicans tenure winds down.
It was going to be an extreme version of the Pelicans' latest look, a version of hodgepodge lineups circulating in and out, coach Alvin Gentry and interim general manager Danny Ferry observing what the team has in reserve as they retool this offseason.
After 2½ quarters of watching the Hawks (27-48) sink wide-open 3-pointers while the home team committed an ample number of turnovers, the Pelicans (31-45) found themselves within striking distance, down 91-78 with 3:55 left in the third quarter. Starting point guard Elfrid Payton was driving in transition, newcomer Christian Wood, whom the team signed off waivers just six days ago, appearing to drive toward the hoop.
But he stopped dead in his tracks, just as Payton lobbed a potential alley-oop toward the rim. Instead of a completing a dunk that would've bring the crowd to its feet, Wood watched the ball sailed out of bounds.
The two players couldn’t help but laugh about their miscommunication — a symptom of the team’s process of mixing daily starters with raw players for meaningful minutes. Just over a minute later, the Pelicans' deficit grew from 13 to 19.
"He has no idea what we're doing, just to be brutally honest," Gentry said about Wood. "But he has the talent where he can create things and do things."
In total, the Pelicans committed 24 turnovers resulting in 26 points for the Hawks, who also made 19 3-pointers to the New Orleans’ 12.
Still off those same youthful players’ grit — most notably Wood, who finished with career-highs in points (23), rebounds (nine), blocks (six) and minutes (32) — the Pelicans fought their way back from as many as 21 points down to pull within eight off Wood’s free throw with 3:14 remaining and six with Darius Miller’s pair of free throws with under 40 seconds to go.
But the Pelicans' early inconsistency did them in. They gave up 42 points in the first quarter and trailed 70-57 at the break.
Julius Randle led the Pelicans with 24 points to go with nine rebounds, and Frank Jackson added 20 points as he neared his career-high of 25 before exiting the game in the third quarter with a concussion. His loss in the coming days, as he goes through the concussion protocol, will likely only amplify the Pelicans' lack of experience in the lineup.
But as long as Gentry continues to see his team fight and display effort late in fourth quarters, he'll be satisfied, all things considered.
"I think that fact that we fought back and got back in the thing," he said. "We could have called it a night tonight, but we didn't do that. We've got some real pros on our team, and they're going to continue to play."