Pelicans energized heading into stretch run of regular season

by Jim Eichenhofer

One of New Orleans’ two Western Conference All-Stars is out for the remainder of the season, but if you sense a feeling of positivity around the Pelicans right now, there’s a good reason. At 31-26 with 25 games remaining, New Orleans is well above .500 coming out of the All-Star break for the first time in seven years. Even in their most recent playoff season of 2014-15, the Pelicans were just a game over the break-even mark at the midseason hiatus. They were 20-33 and 23-34 at this stage during the previous two campaigns, respectively.

“Obviously we’re still in a dogfight for the playoffs, but we put ourselves in a (better) position,” said Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry, “where the last couple years we’ve been trying to dig ourselves out of a hole, because of the injury situation and the things that are going on. Obviously losing DeMarcus (Cousins) is a huge loss, but my message to the team is we can still accomplish what we set out to do.”

After going just 1-5 in the first six games without Cousins, New Orleans posted victories over Brooklyn, Detroit and the Lakers entering the All-Star break. It’s the franchise’s longest winning streak to close the unofficial first half of the season since the Southwest Division-winning squad of 2007-08 won four in a row.

“We ended on a winning streak. That feels really good, to come out of the break with that energy and motivation,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said after Wednesday’s practice.

“We played with pace, unselfishness,” fellow starting guard Rajon Rondo said. “We had a lot of high-assist games. When guys are sharing the ball, it gives the entire team energy.”

New Orleans dished out 31 and 35 assists in the wins over Detroit and the Lakers, the 16th and 17th times the Pelicans have achieved their game-to-game goal of posting 30 in that category. They are 11-6 when they reach that plateau this season, with most of those losses coming against elite opponents including Golden State, Houston and Toronto (twice).

Holiday added that getting some time away from the game was a plus for players, who are already more than two-thirds of the way through the 82-game schedule.

“I think there’s a little juice there,” Holiday said.” Going to the destinations of your choice was awesome. I got to spend time with my family, got to sleep, get away from basketball. It’s always good to just unwind.”

One Pelicans player who didn’t enjoy an extended break was Anthony Davis, who put up All-NBA numbers in the final three New Orleans games prior to his fifth straight All-Star trip. Davis averaged 41.3 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for New Orleans, while shooting an efficient 58 percent from the field. He capped his first-half schedule by going for 42 and 15 against the Lakers, shooting 15/18 from the floor (83 percent).  

“He might beg to differ (from his perspective), but it looked effortless,” Rondo said, when asked what was most impressive about Davis’ three-game stretch. “It didn’t look like he was forcing anything. All the shots he took were great shots. (Also) the intangibles he plays with – changing shots, setting picks, talking defensively. He (scored) 40, but he did a lot of other things as well.”

New Orleans has also benefited from the early-February trade acquisition of forward Nikola Mirotic, who averaged 19.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in the three games, appearing to become increasingly comfortable with his new team.

Rondo noted Wednesday that although New Orleans made noticeable strides prior to the All-Star break, the Pelicans have more room for improvement. In a West that features an extremely tight race – there are only 4.5 games separating third-place San Antonio from No. 10 Utah – every night will carry significant importance.

“We’re still figuring it out. It’s going to take some time,” Rondo said. “But we’re playing better. We’re winning games we’re supposed to win.”