postgame: Spurs 96, Pelicans 80 (3/29/14)

by Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans forward Luke Babbitt looks for an open man while being defending by Spurs forward Austin Daye

SAN ANTONIO – The way things had gone lately for the New Orleans Pelicans, it was starting to seem as if no adverse circumstances, no combination of undermanned roster and high-caliber opponent were too much to overcome. With numerous key Pelicans out of the lineup due to injury over the past two weeks, they still defeated Miami, Brooklyn and the L.A. Clippers during a five-game winning streak.

On Saturday, they finally encountered a predicament that they couldn’t find a way to solve. Playing without All-Star forward Anthony Davis, and facing the NBA’s hottest team, San Antonio, New Orleans (32-41) saw its unlikely streak end in Texas.

The league-leading Spurs (57-16) set the tone by charging to a 23-6 advantage in the initial minutes and maintained a relatively comfortable margin for the rest of the Southwest Division matchup. San Antonio won its 17th consecutive game, capping a 4-0 sweep of New Orleans in the head-to-head season series.

With Davis ruled out prior to tip-off, the Pelicans knew they needed to play exceedingly well on both ends of the floor to be able to hang with the title-contending Spurs. But New Orleans’ offense faltered from the opening moments and never got into a rhythm to be able to seriously threaten San Antonio. The Pelicans finished at just 39.5 percent from the field and were 3-for-12 from three-point range. Monty Williams pinpointed his team’s struggles to convert around the basket as costly.

“We couldn’t finish in the paint tonight,” Williams said. “We were 18-for-48. That’s a bad number for us. We’re a team that usually is high when it comes to points in the paint. Being shorthanded is not an excuse for me because when you compete at a high level, you give yourself a chance. We competed tonight. We just couldn’t finish around the basket.”

New Orleans dug itself a hole immediately by falling behind by double digits in the first quarter, trailing 28-15 after the period. San Antonio extended its lead to 52-35 by halftime, holding its guests to just 36.4 percent shooting.

The Spurs’ lead eventually ballooned to 22 points four minutes into the third quarter, but the Pelicans slowly drew closer. New Orleans got as close as 10 of the lead late in the third, before San Antonio regained total command.

Pelicans reserve guards Brian Roberts (team-best total of 18 points) and Austin Rivers (16 points) carried the offense in the second half, combining for 22 of the team’s 45 points. New Orleans only had 10 healthy players available after Davis was sidelined. He’s being listed as day-to-day.

“We competed,” Rivers said. “We didn’t make shots. It looked like we were a little bit tired, and (the Spurs) were making a lot of shots and executing. They just played a great game and we still had chances. As bad as we shot, as tired as we were, we still competed. Everyone played as hard as they could. They just beat us.”

Williams: “Every group that went out there gave it up for the team. That’s something we’re known for, but it can’t just be competing. We have to add the execution to the competing.”

Speaking of execution, it was another textbook performance by the Spurs, who have built the longest winning streak of any NBA team this season. San Antonio assisted on 24 of its 37 baskets, often scoring easy hoops after cutting and passing efficiently. The hosts made their first four shots en route to connecting on 53.8 percent from the field in the opening half.

“It’s hard to beat the Spurs as it is because they’re a great team, especially when you’re down like that,” Rivers said of the first-quarter hole. “We just came out slow and it was tough from there, but we made our runs. They just execute so well. They’re the best team in the NBA. I don’t care what anybody says, they are, just because they play so well together. I don’t know how to explain it; they’re just really tough to guard. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the other team and say that they beat us tonight.”