Just days after Quincy Pondexter joined the New Orleans roster in mid-January, there were multiple declarations that his new team’s playoff chances were cooked, including a popular local TV sports anchor tweeting “Make no mistake – the Pelicans’ season is over.” So with New Orleans (37-33) now three games behind eighth-place Oklahoma City (40-30) in the Western Conference standings and only 12 games remaining, this isn’t the first time the Pelicans have been counted out by impartial observers.
Unlike a mid-season slump that dipped New Orleans’ record below .500 overall at 20-21, however, in this case there isn’t ample time to try to turn things around. For a team that must close a three-game gap on the Thunder and surpass the ninth-place Suns (38-33) between now and April 15, the margin of error has decreased exponentially.
“We’re (three) games out and we still have a good bit of season left,” said Pondexter, one of the team’s most upbeat players. “It’s do-or-die time right now. It’s win or go home. Our backs are against the wall. We’re going to try to make this thing happen.”
The Pelicans will once again have to do so with a short-handed roster. While Anthony Davis (ankle) returned from a two-game injury absence Sunday to play against the Clippers, second-leading scorer Tyreke Evans (ankle) is questionable, as is starting center Omer Asik (calf strain), entering a critical Wednesday home game vs. Houston. Incidentally, via Houston Chronicle writer Jonathan Feigen, Rockets center Dwight Howard is expected to return from his injury and play Wednesday.
New Orleans third- and fourth-leading scorers Jrue Holiday (leg) and Ryan Anderson (knee) have begun working out at the team’s practice facility, but fifth-year head coach Monty Williams isn’t ready to pinpoint a return date for either player.
“They’re closer,” Williams said of the point guard and reserve catalyst. “They’re starting to do more things on the floor. But they’re not to the point where I can say they’ll play next week or the week after.”
The Pelicans haven’t been close to full strength since a Feb. 21 game at Miami, when both Davis and Anderson were sidelined by injuries, but they were still able to eventually move into sole possession of eighth place. New Orleans put together a five-game winning streak starting with the Heat game and has gone 6-2 in the Smoothie King Center since the All-Star break. Now on a three-game losing streak after a difficult Western road trip, Williams is urging his players to stay on an even keel emotionally.
“Just like we felt five or six days ago – we were on top of the world – now everybody’s in despair a little bit. You can’t be in either spot,” Williams said of the message to his team. “You’ve got to keep your balance and understand that we’re in a good spot. Not where we want to be, but by this time next week, it could all change.”
Combined with OKC going 5-1 in its last six games, New Orleans no longer controls its own destiny, needing help on the scoreboard from other teams to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Thunder host the last-place Lakers on Tuesday, but then will enter a seven-game stretch that features six opponents with winning records (Saturday at Utah is the one exception). Phoenix has won four games in a row, including a 74-72 victory over New Orleans on Thursday.
“If Oklahoma City plays like this for the rest of the year, you tip your hat to them,” Williams said. “If Phoenix keeps playing like that, you tip your hat. But we can’t control any of that. When we get some of our (injured) guys back, we’ll play better, but the guys who get a chance to play have to seize the opportunity… I think it’s going to come down to the last week of the season, maybe even the last game. We’ve got to keep fighting until we get to that point.”