Just over a year ago, the Pelicans wowed the rest of the NBA with the league’s only first-round playoff sweep, leaving one of the NBA’s best backcourts scratching their heads stumbling into the offseason.
Twice this season, New Orleans has managed to hold Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum relatively in check, but their Portland Trailblazers squad is one game away from pulling out the regular season brooms, as the two teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday at the Smoothie King Center for their final matchup of the season.
Against the duo, the Pelicans (30-40) will likely trot out their third different starting backcourt to face Portland this season, with point guard Elfrid Payton back healthy and teammate Jrue Holiday out at least another couple days while nursing an abdominal strain. With Payton and rookie Frank Jackson running the offense, coach Alvin Gentry said Thursday he hopes his squad can continue its trend of quicker play of late while knocking down the open looks they created in Tuesday’s home loss to Milwaukee that wouldn’t drop.
New Orleans set season records with 107 field goal attempts and 47 3-point attempts, but struggled mightily in the first half, where they finished 19-for-56 from the floor and 3-for-27 from deep. But the Pelicans also gave up a franchise-record 45 points in the third quarter to the Bucks, helping seal their fate despite the team’s late burst.
“I think for us we have to get to a point where we’re playing consistently at that pace,” Gentry said. “We have to get our defense better. And we’re going to shoot it better. We’re not going to shoot (10-for-47) from three, cause we went back and looked at them, and 35 are shots we would take every single time.”
As a team, the Pelicans rank 27th in the league in scoring defense (115.6 points per game), but surrendered a particularly hot night to the Trailblazers (41-26) in their pair of road losses this season (128-112 on Jan. 8, 132-119 on Nov. 1).
No matter the state of the game entering Friday’s fourth quarter, Gentry will trot out a different set of closers than have eaten up the late minutes in those two Portland games this season, with the organization continuing to evaluate its young depth and test the durability and late-game performance of guys like Jackson, Payton, Cheick Diallo, Kenrich Williams and Jahlil Okafor.
“I still think there’s something to be learned not going in with three minutes left in the game to play mop-up minutes,” Gentry said. “It’s a situation where if you’re playing well, you can get back in the game, and that’s what we judge it by. You want guys that can get back in the game.”
The Pelicans will continue to play without Holiday, as well as E’Twaun Moore, who continues to recover from a left quad injury. Gentry was reluctant to commit to the pair returning to the floor again this season with 12 games to go and the team well out of playoff contention.
“Unless they take a look and say, ‘Hey, it’s much farther along than we thought.’ If not, it’s ludicrous for us to say, ‘Oh we’re going to stick them back out there,’ and maybe they don’t get hurt,” he said. “We’ll be overly cautious.”
Gentry hopes to have forward Jahlil Okafor back after multiple bouts with separate ankle sprains. The fourth-year forward out of Duke has either missed or played single-digit minutes in six of the team’s last eight games.
“We’re going to need him with (Portland center Jusuf Nurkic) and guys like that. We’re going to need him to bang in there,” Gentry said.