Mardi Gras road trip starts with playoff-caliber trio (2/25/14)

by Jim Eichenhofer

Al-Farouq Aminu throws down a dunk in a January game at Dallas

After often landing in the crosshairs of the infamous “polar vortex” for a large chunk of winter, the New Orleans Pelicans’ upcoming five-game Mardi Gras road trip should feature much warmer conditions, with stops in Texas, Arizona and California.

Beyond that, you be hard-pressed to find a positive description of the nine-day excursion.

Beginning Wednesday in Dallas, the Pelicans (23-33) will try to get back in the win column while facing some formidable competition. The first three opponents of the five-game jaunt – the Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers – all currently rank in the top eight of the Western Conference standings.

The Pelicans have played each of the five opponents on the road previously – including the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers – but went just 1-4 the first time against the quintet. The Pelicans’ lone road victory while facing this fivesome in 2013-14 came Dec. 23, when they prevailed at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.

“We just have to have confidence that we can win,” said point guard Brian Roberts, who’s filling in as a starter for the injured Jrue Holiday. “All we can control is our fight and how we compete. That’s been good enough for us in the past to get wins, so it’s not anything tricky we need to do.”

“It’s going to be mental,” center Alexis Ajinca said of New Orleans trying to end a four-game losing streak. “We’ve got to be ready to bounce back and be physical in the paint. It’s going to be a tough road trip. All of these teams have tough big men.”

The group Ajinca refers to includes the likes of Mavericks All-Star power forward Dirk Nowitzki; the Clippers’ high-flying interior tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan; Kings center DeMarcus Cousins; and Lakers veteran Pau Gasol. The Suns may not feature a headliner big man, but are led by point guard Goran Dragic, a player many believe should’ve been chosen for the All-Star team.

Here’s a closer look at the five-game trip, which bizarrely includes two separate trips to Los Angeles, with a game at Sacramento in between. It also closes with four games in five nights (all times Central):
Wednesday at Dallas (7 p.m., ESPN; Pelicans Radio Network)
Perhaps no head-to-head season series has been more frustrating for the Pelicans than their three previous matchups against the Mavericks. New Orleans is 5-7 in games decided by three points or less this season, with two of those narrow defeats coming vs. Dallas. The most recent encounter, on Jan. 10, was a 110-107 loss that ended in controversy when Austin Rivers tried to shoot a three-pointer at the buzzer but was contacted by Dallas’ Monta Ellis.

Friday at Phoenix (9:30 p.m., ESPN; Pelicans Radio Network)
It’s been awhile since the Pelicans have seen the Suns, having lost to them twice over a five-day span in November. Phoenix had quicksilver point guard Eric Bledsoe on the floor early in the season, but Bledsoe is sidelined by injury. The Suns have barely skipped a beat, shocking many around the NBA by continuing to rack up victories and contend for a playoff berth.

Saturday at L.A. Clippers (9:30 p.m., Fox Sports New Orleans; Pelicans Radio Network)
Objective 1A for the Pelicans will be to try to find a way to slow down the Clippers’ high-octane attack, which has averaged 115.5 points in two wins over New Orleans. The “Rivers Bowl” is now 2-1 all-time in favor of Doc, the first-year Clippers head coach.

Monday at Sacramento (9 p.m., Fox Sports New Orleans; Pelicans Radio Network)
The road team has prevailed in both Pelicans-Kings matchups this season, including a 113-100 triumph for New Orleans in California’s capital city two days before Christmas. The Kings answered with a 114-97 win in the Crescent City on Jan. 22. Tyreke Evans had his season highs in points (25) and assists (12) vs. his former team in the Dec. 23 win.

Tuesday, March 5, at L.A. Lakers (9:30 p.m., Fox Sports New Orleans; Pelicans Radio Network)
A Lakers team decimated by injuries still handed the Pelicans their most one-sided loss of the season on Nov. 12, a 116-95 outcome. Four days earlier in the Big Easy, Anthony Davis terrorized the Lakers in the paint, finishing with 32 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in a 96-85 Pelicans win. This game will decide the three-game season series.