Naji Marshall battles with Denver's P.J. Dozier for a loose ball

Pelicans goal on five-game road trip: Play winning brand of basketball

New Orleans visits Philadelphia, Charlotte, Memphis, Dallas, Golden State on trek
by Jim Eichenhofer

The math makes it impossible for the New Orleans Pelicans to finish this 2020-21 season with a winning record – the best they can do is .500 – but Stan Van Gundy’s goal the rest of the way is simple: To play winning basketball. Trailing 10th-place San Antonio (31-34) by two games in the loss column for the final Western Conference play-in spot, the Pelicans’ postseason fate isn’t entirely in their hands, even if they put together a hot close to the 72-game schedule. Their first-year head coach wants the focus to be on what they can control.

This week’s two-game miniseries split vs. Golden State, which featured two drastically different outcomes for New Orleans (30-36), was a perfect illustration of Van Gundy’s late-season objective.

“Our theme over these last two weeks is we want to play winning basketball,” Van Gundy said after Thursday’s practice, which preceded an afternoon trip to Philadelphia. “We’ve defined that in a lot of ways. Winning teams take care of the ball, get back on defense, defend and make physical plays – they take charges, they dive on loose balls, they block people out. Winning teams set screens, move the ball to get good shots.”

New Orleans lost by 15 points to Golden State on Monday, then played much crisper basketball Tuesday en route to a five-point win. That meant better transition defense, fewer turnovers and improved ball movement against the Warriors.

“Whether the ball goes in or not, and whether the other team makes shots or not, those are things you don’t have control over,” Van Gundy said. “So we’re not defining winning basketball in terms of the result or the record. We want to focus on the things that win games. After the long haul, if you do that enough, then it all takes care of itself.

“That’s where we want to focus. I thought we did a lot better job on Tuesday than we did on Monday. On Monday, we had a lot of defensive breakdowns, gave up a lot of layups, turned the ball over. We did not play winning basketball. On Tuesday, we played winning basketball. We didn’t shoot the ball great, but we did those (winning) things.”

Many winning things will be required Friday, when New Orleans launches a five-game road trip in Philadelphia (45-21), where the 76ers are 25-7 at home, the league’s second-best mark. The Pelicans will have a chance to cut their deficit behind San Antonio to just one game, prior to the Spurs tipping off in Sacramento late Friday. A coast-to-coast trek for the Pelicans continues Sunday in Charlotte (32-33), followed by Week 21 road games at Memphis (33-32), Dallas (37-28) and Golden State (33-33). Every remaining opponent has something significant to play for right now, from the 76ers trying to claim the No. 1 seed in the East, to the Mavs and Lakers (37-28, visit NOLA on May 16) trying to avoid the play-in tournament, to the Hornets, Grizzlies and Warriors attempting to cement play-in berths.

“(It’s) win or go home, basically,” Pelicans rookie wing Naji Marshall said. “I love it. The odds all against us right now, we’re one game out of the play-in. Now it’s time for us to go get it. It’s kind of the moment you live for in basketball. You just want to compete. I’m a competitor – I just want to compete at every moment. So I’m really loving this space we’re in right now and I’m looking forward to it.”

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