Pelicans a work in progress, but making progress

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NEW ORLEANS — The first quarter was halfway over and the Pelicans were trailing, 17-2, on Wednesday night.

Fifteen-point first-quarter leads can evaporate easily in the NBA, but New Orleans was facing San Antonio, the most consistently elite professional basketball program of the last 20 years.

Nonetheless, the Pelicans weren’t doomed. Far from it in fact.

Jrue Holiday fed DeMarcus Couins for a dunk. Rajon Rondo made a steal and a layup. Cousins blocked a shot. Suddenly, New Orleans had a pulse.

Cousins would score five more points and Darius Miller would come off the bench to score six as the Pelicans got within 10 at the end of the quarter.

Then New Orleans tightened up its defense, which had given up 125 points to Toronto and 146 to Denver in back-to-back disheartening losses last week.

The Pelicans passed the Spurs when Rondo fed Holiday for a layup and a 41-40 lead. They extended the lead to eight at halftime after allowing just four points in the final five minutes of the second quarter.

“They picked up their intensity and we never picked up ours,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said.

In the third quarter the Pelicans made 61 percent of their field-goal attempts and the Spurs made 30 percent of theirs. New Orleans outscored San Antonio 37-17 in the period to take a 28-point lead.

The margin dwindled to 17 (107-90) at the final buzzer of a game that featured a 2 1/2-quarter stretch in which the Pelicans outscored the Spurs 85-40.

“They won three quarters, we won one,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Games on Thanksgiving eve don’t tell you a whole lot about what a team’s season will look like when it’s completed in April, May, or in rare cases, June.

But this one was fairly significant for the Pelicans nonetheless.

Sure the Spurs played without Kawhi Leonard, one of the elite players in the NBA, and Tony Parker, a savvy point guard who has four championship rings. But they have been playing without them since the start of the season and still San Antonio entered the game with an 11-6 record, third best in the Western Conference.

As for New Orleans, it left the Smoothie King Center with a 10-8 record, but its second consecutive victory against a Western contender, having beaten Oklahoma City 114-107 on Monday. The Thunder is just 8-9, but it figures to be one of the better teams in the league, as evidenced by its 108-91 victory against the defending champion Warriors on Wednesday.

The Pelicans remain very much a work in progress but a team that is making progress. It’s slow and it’s not in a consistently upward trajectory as demonstrated by the games against Toronto and Denver.

But for the second consecutive game, coach Alvin Gentry’s experiment with a smaller starting lineup paid dividends. Sacrificing four inches in height for more quickness, more consistent shooting and better defense by starting E’Twaun Moore instead of Dante Cunningham has been a good deal.

Rondo’s increasing impact as he regains strength and stamina after a core muscle injury is significant. His numbers — six points, five rebounds and four assists against the Spurs — don’t always adequately reflect his steadying influence on both ends of the floor.

Speaking of impacts that exceed statistics, let’s not forget reserve forward Tony Allen, whose recent four-game absence weakened an already thin bench. He brings much-needed defense and toughness off the bench.

And speaking of the bench, Darius Miller continues to improve, playing a bench-high 28 minutes and contributing 12 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal.

Now the Pelicans go back on the road, facing an improved but still mediocre Phoenix team on Friday and Golden State on Saturday.

It continues an important stretch of the early part of the season. Of New Orleans’ first eight victories, only two came against teams that had winning records entering play Wednesday.

The losses to the Raptors and Nuggets began an 11-game stretch in which eight of the opponents have winning records. The poor start to it suggested New Orleans’ modest record was a mirage and the current stretch would expose the team.

But the victories against Oklahoma City and San Antonio, the latter being by far the best win of the young season, suggest we’re still learning who these Pelicans are and what their capabilities are.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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