Pelicans homestand to close December an opportunity to improve position in West

by Jim Eichenhofer

The entirety of New Orleans’ 2017-18 regular season has been played on a virtual tightrope, with the Pelicans never sporting a record of more than three games above .500, or more than two games below it. Since early November, New Orleans has been in the top eight of the Western Conference standings, but never with much breathing room – it’s frequently filled the No. 8 spot, and at 17-16 overall, eighth is also the Pelicans’ current position.

The final week of December could finally provide a chance to move out of that precarious place in the West. Over the next four days, New Orleans will host three teams that are a combined 9-34 on the road this season, starting with a Wednesday game vs. Brooklyn, the only visitor of the trio that has won more than twice away from home.

“We can control our own destiny,” Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo said after Tuesday’s practice. “If we can take the mindset of one game at a time, especially in front of these fans here at home, we can put ourselves in a good position to move up a little bit further.”

New Orleans has been tantalizingly close in several instances to already doing that, trailing teams like Denver (sixth, 18-15) and Portland (seventh, 17-16, owns tiebreaker vs. NOLA based on conference record) by minimal margins. Oklahoma City (fifth, 19-15) was behind the Pelicans for much of the regular season, prior to the Thunder’s active five-game winning streak. All of those teams are within immediate striking distance for New Orleans, particularly if it can put together a quality homestand and begin improving upon a so-so home record of just 8-7. After hosting Brooklyn (12-20 overall, 5-10 on the road), the Pelicans have a weekend back-to-back in the Smoothie King Center vs. Dallas (9-25, 2-14 road) and New York (17-16, 2-10 road).

“Any time you play at home – it doesn’t matter who you play – you’ve got to have success,” Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said Tuesday. “If you look at our (home) record now, I don’t think we’re very pleased. If you can win half of your road games (it’s a positive), and we’re sitting in that position right now (at 9-9 on the road).

“I just think we’ve got to do better at home than the record we have right now. That separates you from being a middle-of-the-pack team or maybe even getting an opportunity to get a little separation (from the pack). But I don’t think you can be a .500 team at home, which is almost what we are. You’ve got to be much better than that.”

Rondo half-jokingly said Tuesday that he thought the Pelicans might move up the West ladder by not playing over the past few days, though that didn’t happen. Realistically, one thing that’s benefited New Orleans through the first two months of the season is that the West is less dominant depth-wise than it has been in quite some time, perhaps since the 1980s or 1990s. As a result, despite New Orleans being just one game over .500, even fourth place is not an unrealistic target – Minnesota is the current No. 4 at 21-13, only three games ahead in the loss column.

The Pelicans have a chance to close the gap between themselves and clubs like the Timberwolves with three straight home games, as well as a stretch through the end of January that consists of 10 of the next 17 games in Louisiana. For now, New Orleans is focusing on starting its homestand in positive fashion, facing a Brooklyn team that posted a stunning 143-114 victory over the Pelicans in the Nets’ lone visit of 2016-17. The Pelicans enter Week 11 of this NBA season coming off two one-sided weekend wins in Orlando and Miami, by 14- and 15-point margins.

“This Brooklyn team, everybody knows what they did to us last year,” Gentry said. “It was probably our worst home loss. So they’re very capable, having three-point shooters and they play extremely hard. We can’t take anything for granted. We have to play at the same intensity level that we did in the two games in Florida last week.”