Whew! Pelicans earn a breather — for the moment
NEW ORLEANS — Whew!
Now the Pelicans can take a moment to catch their breath.
Not long, mind you, because they have to get back to this Western Conference playoff race Saturday in Houston against the NBA’s best team — the Rockets. But given what they’ve been through and what they’ve accomplished in these last few days, they’ve earned a breather.
They overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 128-125, on Thursday night in the Smoothie King Center. Rajon Rondo had half of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, and a Lakers team that had a season-high 44 points in the first quarter and 108 through three quarters, didn’t score in the final 3:30.
It was the Pelicans’ third victory in barely 48 hours because they and the Indiana Pacers were forced to play Wednesday night on what was supposed to be an off night but became the makeup date for a game postponed six weeks earlier when a leaky roof in the Smoothie King Center allowed rain to saturate the floor and make it unplayable.
The Pelicans overcame a five-point Pacers lead in the final nine minutes to prevail, 96-92, in a game in which they shot 43 percent, totaled a season-low 15 assists and turned the ball over 20 times.
The rare stretch of three games in three nights began with a slightly less dramatic 115-105 victory against Dallas on Tuesday night, though the score of that game was tied with nine minutes to go.
From approximately 7:10 p.m. Tuesday to approximately 9:20 p.m. Thursday, Anthony Davis played 106 minutes and 54 seconds, averaged 32.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and three blocks while making 65 percent of his shots.
Though the Pelicans didn’t play a game Monday, they did host the Rockets on Saturday and the Celtics on Sunday for a total of five games in six days. After losing to the Rockets, they beat the Celtics to start a win streak that reached four with the victory against the Lakers.
“Mentally tough. Mentally tough. Just had to grind it out,” Davis said. “It was one of those games where you’ve got to grind out a team who was making a lot of shots, playing very well. Five (games) in six (nights), so it was just one of those games we just tried to fight through the fatigue – physically and mentally.”
The victory against the Pacers gave New Orleans its first winning record in coach Alvin Gentry’s three seasons. The victory against the Lakers moved it into a tie with Oklahoma City for fourth place in the Western Conference with a 3 1/2-game lead over ninth-place Denver in the battle for the eight playoff spots with nine games to play.
Though the Pelicans are 43-30 and closer to third-place Portland (two games), which comes to the Smoothie King Center on Tuesday, than it is to Denver, there is still work to be done to secure a playoff spot and strengthen positioning.
But given the way this team has handled the last week in general and the last three days in particular, things are looking better by the day.
Remember that the Pelicans’ last road game came one week ago when, just hours after learning of the death of owner Tom Benson, they lost to San Antonio, 98-93, to fall into sixth place, a mere game and a half from ninth place.
What a difference a week makes.
On Friday, Davis, Gentry and general manager Dell Demps will serve as honorary pall bearers at Benson’s funeral.
Before the game against the Lakers, Gentry talked about the “tremendous honor,” that Mrs. Benson bestowed on him. He recalled that Benson was “100 percent in” on trying to build a championship team.
When New Orleans had an opportunity to trade for DeMarcus Cousins 13 months ago — and take on roughly $25 million in salary for the remainder of last season and all of this season plus potentially upwards of another $200 million to re-sign Cousins — Benson said, “if it’s going to give us a chance to win a championship, let’s do it.”
So they did, but Cousins was lost for the rest of this season when he tore an Achilles on Jan. 26, and the Pelicans lost five of their next six games. Suddenly the lottery seemed a more likely destination than the playoffs.
Then they followed that lull with a 10-game win streak and have won 15 of their last 19.
Now it’s on to Houston to start the final 19 days of the season.
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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…