For the Pelicans’ playoff hopes, it’s now or never

NEW ORLEANS. Tuesday night was another dizzying event in Crescent City.

The New Orleans Pelicans went into one of their most important games of the season, a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers without LeBron James, needing a win. The teams entered the game tied in the standings, and a New Orleans victory would have given the Pelicans an advantage in the Western Conference play-in race and tied the season streak with the Lakers.

The night was almost over as soon as it began. A little more than three minutes later, the Lakers took a 14-0 lead. The Pelicans were 35 points behind after two quarters, the biggest halftime deficit in franchise history. The Lakers lead increased to 40 points, leaving New Orleans 15 points down.

The loss dropped New Orleans to 11th in the West outside of a game, a dismal position for a team that led the Western Conference in late December.

“I think every loss is a concern at this stage given where we are in the standings, given who we play against, the teams that we either get into or they find themselves in a situation,” the Pelicans defenseman said. CJ McCollum after losing to the Lakers. “We have to have a sense of urgency. We must start well. We need to compete. such situations.”

The Pelicans have only 13 games left on the schedule to develop that sense of urgency, and the next four are as attractive as can be at the end of the season for a team trying to win games and make the playoffs.

New Orleans played two games with Houston (17-52) before returning home to play against San Antonio (18-51) and Charlotte (22-49). These teams have the second, third, and fourth-worst record in the league this season, and New Orleans is playing them perfectly 6-0 this season. The Pelicans are one of five teams that have not lost to the trio, as well as the Detroit Pistons, who have the worst record in the NBA.

But at this stage of the season, victory is not guaranteed. Houston wins straight with the Boston Celtics and Lakers; The Spurs beat the Western-leading Denver Nuggets last week and came close to beating the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. Charlotte was on a five-game winning streak during the All-Star break and took the win in New York against the Knicks last week.

“The most important game is Houston. [Friday]”, Pelicans forward Trey Murphy III said Tuesday. “And that’s all we can worry about right now. I’m not going to say I didn’t know who we’d be playing after Houston because it’s a two-game trip. , but at the end of the day, this is the team you should focus on. No team should be taken lightly.”

According to Sportzshala Analytics, the Pelicans rank 11th among those remaining in the NBA in terms of ease, but the Lakers team, which is directly ahead of them in the standings, is in third place. The Dallas Mavericks, currently ranked eighth in the West, have the fifth-easiest schedule. So the Pelicans can’t afford to hand out games they should win.

Some Pelicans watch the standings every night. Some just play. They also understand the magnitude of what lies ahead.

“Each one of them is mandatory to win, that’s how we’re going,” Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. said Tuesday. “We don’t have the luxury of losing every one of those games. We don’t have the luxury of taking a day off or relaxing in one game.”

So what do the Pelicans need to avoid the bad starts that have plagued them?

“Permanence. Just. We have to be consistent,” Pelicans coach Willie Greene said Wednesday. “That’s 48 minutes of consistent play. When we do this, it does not guarantee us victory, but we have a chance to win these games. When we don’t know, it doesn’t look good for us.”

The game against the Lakers was no exception. When the Pelicans played the Oklahoma City Thunder last Saturday, a team they also tied against, they trailed by double figures in the first quarter on their way to a 14-point loss.

When asked about the discrepancy, McCollum pointed to a number of factors, including injuries. The Pelicans were 60 points ahead of their rivals when McCollum, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram shared the field, but the trio have played together a total of 172 minutes this season – just over 5% of the Pelicans’ total for the season.

Williamson has not played since January 2 with a right hamstring strain. Ingram missed two months from November 25 to January 25 with a bruised left big toe. In recent weeks, José Alvarado’s spark plug has failed due to a stress reaction in his right calf and a return date remains uncertain. Rookie defenseman Dyson Daniels has been out for nearly a month with an ankle injury. Nancy, the top rebounder off the bench, suffered an ankle injury and returned to the field early.

Absences have forced Green to use several different lineup combinations, but the Pelicans say there are things that are under their control that they haven’t done often enough.

“At the end of the day, we just have to compete,” Murphy said. “We must hold each other accountable. We have to do the right thing to give ourselves a chance to win games. I know myself, there were times when obviously I had to defend better or do something right. Our youth is no excuse, especially when you’re trying to be a playoff team. So at the end of the day, I just have to be better and we all have to be better as a team.”

Despite feeling it was all over after Tuesday’s loss, McCollum was quick to point out that the season wasn’t over yet. Sportzshala Analytics still gives New Orleans a 39.7% chance of making the play-in.

On Wednesday, the Pelicans returned to the training ground in what Green said was “one of the best we’ve had in weeks.” New Orleans went a little longer than usual at this time of the season, but it was necessary.

Green said his message to the team was that everyone should get better, even him.

“I have to put our guys in the best position to succeed. And that’s what we’re aiming for,” Greene told reporters on Wednesday. “Our players are committed to this. Our employees are committed to this. We have as many games as we have left to keep pushing for that.”

With Williamson’s return schedule still up in the air, New Orleans has a chance to move up the standings before he returns to the court.

How exactly will this happen?

“We’re going to find out in the future,” McCollum said.


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