Nicolo Melli dunks at Cleveland

Pelicans eager to make playoff push, build on strong past two months

by Jim Eichenhofer

The list of what if’s seems endless: What if Zion Williamson hadn’t missed the first 44 games? What if New Orleans avoided stretching a franchise-record losing streak to 13 in December? What if the Pelicans hadn’t been one of the NBA’s most injury-hit teams early in 2019-20, even setting aside Williamson’s absence? It’s tempting for Crescent City fans and media to speculate and rue how much better position the Pelicans could be in standings-wise, but for players and coaches, it’s all about focusing on the present and the future.

As Williamson himself noted after Thursday’s practice, there’s not much point in dwelling on what could have been in a season that’s seen a dramatic turnaround since Christmas.

“My mom taught me to never live off of (hypothetical situations such as), what if I was playing?” said the No. 1 overall draft pick, who has immediately excelled in his first 10 career games. “It’s about now, and the situation we’re dealing with now. We’ve just got to play together and make that push together.”

New Orleans (23-32) is in 11th place in the Western Conference and 5.5 games behind eighth-place Memphis (28-26), but the Pelicans have been a top-10 team in the league by virtually any measure over the past two months. New Orleans is 17-10 since Dec. 18, a rate of success that if continued would allow the Pelicans to threaten .500 and likely stay in the playoff hunt. Over the two-month span, New Orleans has the NBA’s ninth-best winning percentage, putting it in the company of playoff-lock teams like the LA Clippers (16-10 since Dec. 18), Houston (16-11) and Miami (16-11).

“I think it’s good for our guys,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said, alluding to the recent success and enthusiasm players returned with following the All-Star hiatus. “They understand that even with that disastrous 13-game losing streak, we still put ourselves in a position where – if we make a significant run – we can be in the (race). Getting Zion and actually seeing how he fits in, and every day we figure out a little bit more, I think we grow from the standpoint of positioning and where he wants the ball, fitting in with the other guys.”

“I think there is definitely momentum, going into the second half and knowing how important it is, the schedule and what we have to do,” guard Jrue Holiday said of the Pelicans’ excitement for the final 27 games.

With only two head-to-head games remaining vs. Memphis, New Orleans can only control its playoff fate to an extent, needing to play extremely well while also needing some help on the scoreboard. The Pelicans have a chance to create a very interesting stretch run if they can take advantage of the NBA’s most favorable schedule on paper; the Grizzlies are facing the most difficult.

“It’s not an easy push at all,” Williamson said, when asked about the challenge of trying to erase the gap behind Memphis, Portland (1.5 games) and San Antonio (half game). “But we’re not going in with that mindset; we’re going in with the mindset that we can do it. We’ve just got to work together.”

“Who knows, really?” Holiday responded to the same question about what the Pelicans are facing. “I feel like we’ve really gotten into a rhythm, especially introducing Zion and (Brandon Ingram) coming back. I feel like we have a lot of firepower. Defensively, we’ve grown and gotten a lot better. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be fun, to say the least. All we have to do is play our game. We’ve shown against the best teams that if we play the right way and we play our game, we’ll always put ourselves in a position to win.”

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