How long can this go on?
More than 25 percent through one of the most pivotal seasons in franchise history, the New Orleans Pelicans are mired in a familiar funk.
Slow starts have sunk a promising opening salvo to the season. And everyone seems to know it.
Alvin Gentry talks about it after every game. Anthony Davis laments it, too. So does Julius Randle and Jrue Holiday.
The script is so familiar you can insert quotes from nearly any of the Pelicans’ five losses over their past six games and wouldn’t find much of a difference.
There’s a line about needing a “perfect storm” to come back. Or “running out of gas” when the second-half comeback inevitably falls short.
Yet nothing changes.
The Pelicans own the league’s worst first-quarter defense this season, allowing 119.4 points per 100 possessions. And in November, they were outscored by 18.7 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, the second-worst mark in the NBA.
It’s a searing problem, in a season built around displaying a championship vision for Davis, in advance of his super-max contract extension offer.
And those heights seem particularly unreachable right now, considering the Pelicans can’t even fix the first quarter.
The most egregious example yet came in Friday night’s 106-101 loss to the beleaguered Miami Heat, who played without injured stars Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson. Miami snapped their longest home losing streak in a decade, by walloping the Pelicans from the opening tip, en route to taking a 59-28 lead midway through the second quarter.
Yes. The Pelicans were down by 31 points in the second quarter.
While they eventually rallied within a missed game-tying Nikola Mirotic 3-pointer, New Orleans came up short, just as it did in eerily similar losses to Minnesota, Boston and Philadelphia.
“It’s tough playing down every game,” Davis said on Friday. "Playing from 30 tonight and then try to use all the energy we have to try and catch back up. You use a lot of energy and these guys are playing the same pace.
“They are able to come out in ways that we are never able to get over the hump because we are using so much energy to come back. We can’t put ourselves in a position to use so much energy to come back and then not have enough in the tank to close out games.”
Davis said they learned a lesson after losing to the Wizards last week, prompting a more focused start in Wednesday’s blowout win over the same Wizards at the Smoothie King Center.
But, the message didn’t make it to Miami.
Now, the Pelicans will see if it arrives in Charlotte on Sunday at 4 p.m., when they face the 11-11 Hornets.
“I think we have come out too lackadaisical at times,” Davis said Friday. “Whether it’s a team that’s under .500 or whatever, we have to come out and play these games the same way. We played a different way because we had lost to Washington so we just came out with a little more urgency because we had lost to them before. We just have to come out and play the way we are supposed to play at all times.”
Whose job is that? Where does it start?
Despite being an All-NBA stalwart, Davis is as guilty as everyone else. And he isn’t absolving himself of responsibility.
For his part, Gentry seemed open to making lineup changes after Friday’s loss. But there aren’t any obvious answers when saddled with thin depth and a handful of injuries.
“It was somewhat lack of effort, but our execution wasn’t good either,” Gentry said Friday night. “When you put the effort along with the execution, then you put yourself somewhat behind the 8-ball. If we can’t seem to get it done, then we will make changes and try something else.”
What’s left to try? There’s certainly not much left to say.
The coaches know it. The players know it. The fans know it.
The Pelicans simply need to prioritize the start of the game, recognizing the first quarter counts as much as the other three.
The story of this season isn’t yet written. Their record last year was eerily similar at this time, and New Orleans finished the year with a flourish and reached the second round of the playoffs.
But, this also can’t be overlooked. Because as the Pelicans are still trying to figure themselves out, the games count and the Western Conference looks as deep as its ever been.
A reshuffled roster is expected to come with kinks and off nights are part of an 82-game season. But a 2-10 road record and a pattern of unfocused performances should cause concern.
Especially with Davis’ future at stake.
“It’s old,” Randle said. “I’m disappointed. But we have another one (Sunday), so we just have to bounce back.”