Pelicans still in good position despite recent losses

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Willie Green
New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green looksto navigate his team through a challenging set of games and into the NBA playoffs (Photo: Stephen Lew).

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans have lost five of their last six games.

They are about to play three road games in four days.

They’re still awaiting the return of leading scorer Brandon Ingram, whose strained hamstring is supposed to be re-evaluated this week.

It’s going to a challenge for the Pelicans to hang on to the final play-in spot in the Western Conference.

Then again …

The Pelicans are holding onto the 10th spot despite a 1-12 start to the season that led to a 3-16 record.

Second-leading scorer CJ McCollum returned from a two-game absence while in the NBA health and safety protocols to score 21 points against visiting Phoenix on Tuesday night.

It was wasn’t nearly enough in a 131-115 loss to the best team in the NBA, but the Pelicans have a better chance with just Ingram out rather than both of its top two scorers out.

Besides, Ingram could be back soon, perhaps as soon as the road trip opener Friday in San Antonio, or Sunday in Atlanta or Monday in Charlotte.

The Pelicans have had a really difficult time winning without Ingram – 3-16 – but with him and McCollum, who gave the team an obvious lift when he arrived in a trade with Portland last month, both in the lineup they are 5-5.

They had won four in a row behind those two before squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in an overtime loss at Denver 10 days ago. Ingram hasn’t played since.

That loss started a four-game losing streak that was interrupted by a win against the worst team in the NBA (the Houston Rockets) before the loss to the Suns.

During this stretch, the ninth-place Lakers could have extended their lead on the Pelicans, or New Orleans’ closest pursuers – the Trail Blazers, Spurs and the Kings could have moved appreciably closer to No. 10.

But none of that happened because, just like the Pelicans, those teams are struggling to win nearly as often as they lose and sneak into the play-in tournament.

After Tuesday’s games, the Pelicans were 1½ games behind the Lakers and led the Blazers by one game, the Spurs by two and the Kings by 3½.

All of those teams will be in action Wednesday night so the numbers will change a bit before the Pelicans visit the Spurs in the first of a series of head-to-head games that will be especially significant during the final 24 days of New Orleans’ season.

The Pelicans have 13 more games to play – eight on the road and five at home. They have home-and-home games against the Lakers, Blazers and Spurs in addition to visiting the Kings.

They are 1-0 against both the Lakers and the Blazers, 0-2 against the Spurs and 1-2 against the Kings. So those head-to-head match-ups not only will have a significant effect on the won-lost records, they also will impact tie-breakers that could come into play.

It seems likely that the Pelicans will be neither mathematically locked into a play-in spot nor mathematically locked out of one until the season finale at home against Golden State on April 10 – or a game or two before that.

None of these teams is likely to put together a lengthy winning streak that is going to settle things before the final days of the regular season. And even a losing stretch such as the one the Pelicans are mired in is unlikely to eliminate anyone – except perhaps the Kings – because these teams are essentially equally mediocre.

The Pelicans have not had their best player (Zion Williamson) for a single game this season. Ingram has missed 19 games and McCollum has played in just 13 since arriving.

Willie Green is a rookie head coach still figuring out his new job and team, and his players are still figuring him out.

It’s going to be a battle down the stretch just to grab the few post-season crumbs that are within the Pelicans reach.

But the Pelicans do control their fate. If they match the won-lost record of their pursuers they will be in the play-in.

They might even move up, given the fact that the Lakers, who have not won on the road since January 25, play 10 of their last 14 games on the road.

Green told his team after Tuesday’s loss, “We’re in a great spot.”

It’s not the spot they aspire to once they have all of their players healthy or in a year or two after Green’s program and his youthful roster have had an opportunity to evolve.

But under the circumstances it’s acceptable.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s 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. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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