Pelicans goal remains reaching playoffs, despite DeMarcus Cousins season-ending injury

by Jim Eichenhofer

On a dreary, gloomy Saturday that accurately mirrored the mood among many New Orleans Pelicans fans and their team at the moment, it was more difficult than usual to hear player interviews inside the Ochsner Sports Performance Center, as heavy rainfall battered the roof. But as five-time All-Star forward Anthony Davis addressed media questions about how the Pelicans (27-21) will try to move forward without one of their best players for the rest of this season, Davis’ demeanor and tone brightened.

“Oh man, hey!” Davis said, looking to his far right. “You want to come join me?”

Davis had spotted DeMarcus Cousins, who briefly peeked his head in the practice facility, while standing on crutches. Cousins was officially ruled out for the season Saturday due to a torn left Achilles tendon, an injury he sustained in the final seconds of Friday’s thrilling 115-113 win vs. Houston. Cousins smiled at Davis’ request, but waved off the chance to join Davis and speak with reporters, something Cousins will likely do at some point in the near future.

Cousins won’t be able to help Davis on the court anymore in 2017-18, but in the 48 games he played this season, the four-time All-Star helped put New Orleans in good position to achieve its goal of returning to the Western Conference playoffs. The Pelicans are three games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers (24-24), who coincidentally will be the guests Sunday in the Smoothie King Center. With Cousins in uniform, New Orleans was on pace for its best season in seven years. Over the final 34 games, the Pelicans will now likely need even more production from Davis, as well as several players who are already enjoying superb seasons, such as Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller.

“A lot of that is because of DeMarcus,” Holiday said of he and teammates excelling. “Last night he had a triple-double, and it looked easy. People are just going to have to step up and take more of a load. It starts tomorrow.”

“Everybody’s playing well,” Davis said of a Pelicans team that is 7-1 in the last eight games. “Jrue’s playing well, E’Twaun, Darius. We’ve just got to carry that over to the rest of the season. Of course missing one of our main guys is tough, but it means guys have to step up and be prepared.”

“What we talked about is we still have a goal in mind that’s still attainable,” said third-year Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, who was contacted by 15 to 20 of his colleagues around the NBA after they learned of the Cousins injury. “Obviously when you lose a guy that’s having the kind of year DeMarcus is having, (it’s very tough). With that being said, we have to set that aside and get back on track. We understand that we have a lot of work to do, but everything we set out to do this year is still out in front of us.”

One of the biggest positives of having Davis and Cousins on the same roster is that the Pelicans nearly always have one of them on the court during games. Though that won’t be the case anymore when Davis needs a breather in-game, guard Rajon Rondo pointed out Saturday that New Orleans still has a major advantage on the other 29 teams.

“There is still only one Anthony Davis,” Rondo said. “No one can match that. We have to continue to trust one another. It’s a team sport. We’ll play team basketball and hope we make the right decisions down the stretch of games. That’s when most games are decided.”

Prior to Cousins being acquired last season – and after Holiday missed the first 12 games for family reasons – New Orleans played roughly .500 ball from mid-November to mid-February. If the Pelicans can at least repeat that for the rest of ’17-18, they’ll likely reach the postseason for the first time since 2015. Asked if New Orleans can continue its recent excellent play (9-3 in January) without Cousins, Rondo responded, “Time will tell. It’s all about results. We get judged every night on our performance. We’ll see, starting (Sunday vs. the Clippers).

“We’ll look a lot different in some areas, but that’s part of the season. No team is always 100 percent. Things like this happen all the time. Unfortunately, it happened to us this year, with one of our best players going down. We have 13 or 14 other guys that have to step up.”

Holiday also referenced Sunday’s matchup with the Clippers as an important one in the Pelicans’ push to regroup and eventually qualify for the playoffs.

“We’ve just got to pick up our guy,” Holiday said of responding to Cousins’ season-ending injury. “Pick him up, have him in our prayers, pray that surgery goes well and that he recovers quickly. From there, we’ve still got to play. There is a whole lot of season left. We have to come together even more.

“We’ve had injuries before, so we have to adapt to that as a team. We hate that DeMarcus is out for the rest of the season, but we have to look at the next game is a big game, because those guys are trying to get our spot.”