Brandon Ingram shoots a layup at Dallas last season

Pelicans prepare for seven-game road trip, tied for longest in New Orleans history

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

New Orleans players were supposed to watch the clock strike midnight separately in the Big Easy on New Year’s Eve, but an ice storm postponed the Pelicans’ postgame return flight from Oklahoma City. There was a silver lining: Instead of celebrating the start of 2021 on their own, an impromptu, socially-distanced, mini-gathering was arranged at the team’s OKC hotel. As has often been the case since training camp, the Pelicans’ five international players used part of the unexpected get-together to joke with each other about their differing backgrounds, ranging from Steven Adams’ upbringing in New Zealand to Willy Hernangomez’s childhood in Spain to Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s roots in Canada.

“Being a new guy on a new team, it’s always really fun to get to know everyone,” November free-agent signing Hernangomez said of the group, which also includes Nicolo Melli (Italy) and two-way player Will Magnay (Australia). “They’re great guys to be around.”

“We’ve got this little international thing going on,” Alexander-Walker said, smiling. “(I’ve been) just going to eat with them, talking and enjoying being in the NBA. We’re just hanging out, talking about where we’re from… just bonding and building relationships.”

“Everyone discusses their own countries,” Hernangomez said. “We always joke with each other about our countries and whose is better.”

Over the next two weeks, the quintet will have plenty of additional time to learn about their teammates’ nations – such as Spain’s tradition of eating a dozen grapes at midnight on Jan. 1, to bring good luck for each of the next 12 months. On Sunday afternoon, the Pelicans will fly to Dallas to begin a seven-game, 14-day road trip. By comparison, their longest trek in 2019-20 was just four games. The seven-game trip is tied for the longest in franchise history (the 2002-03 Hornets went 3-4 on a December excursion).

With the schedule arranged so that New Orleans plays a game every other day, that leaves six full non-gamedays. Normally that could mean perhaps a trip to explore Napa Valley on the Saturday before the game at Sacramento, or checking out Park City during a four-day stay in Utah, but due to COVID-19, those options aren’t possible. NBA teams are restricted to select, approved restaurants and players are trying to stay in their hotel rooms as much as is reasonably possible. In other words, a two-week road trip this winter presents a new set of challenges from mental and time-management standpoints.

“We’re looking at maybe setting some things up to get them out of their rooms,” Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said Thursday of handling the lengthy road trip. “But I really think what players want (under normal conditions) is to do something other than being with their team (during free time). They love each other and enjoy being around each other, but occasionally guys like to meet up with (non-basketball) friends and go out to dinner, but none of that’s available. We’ll try to figure out some stuff. It’s just not easy for anybody, but we’re no different than any of the 29 other teams in the league, either.”

From Jan. 10-23, New Orleans (4-5) will play in three different time zones, and perhaps the only thing more challenging than the logistics and off-court aspects of the journey is the competition. Although some of the Pelicans’ six opponents (they play Utah twice) are off to up-and-down starts, the road trip features five games vs. teams that reached the Western Conference playoffs in 2020.

Here’s a five-city look at what’s in store for New Orleans (all times Central, all games on Fox Sports New Orleans, 100.3 FM:

AT DALLAS

Monday, Jan. 11 vs. Mavericks, 7:30 p.m.

Trip distance (from New Orleans): 505 miles

As the NCAA’s football championship game takes place, the Pelicans and Mavericks will play the first of three straight national TV games for New Orleans this week, this one on NBA TV. Dallas (5-4) will enter on a three-game winning streak, having beaten Houston, Denver and Orlando.

AT LOS ANGELES

Wednesday, Jan. 13 vs. Clippers, 9 p.m.

Trip distance (from Dallas): 1,436 miles

The ESPN matchup will feature a well-rested Clippers team, having not played since a Sunday afternoon home game vs. Chicago. LA (6-4) started 4-1, but has dropped three of its last five games.

Friday, Jan. 15 vs. Lakers, 9 p.m.

ESPN will broadcast a second consecutive Pelicans game in Staples Center. The Lakers (7-3) enter Sunday’s action tied atop the Western Conference standings with Phoenix. Based on the NBA’s division vs. division scheduling plan for 2020-21, this will be New Orleans’ final game in Los Angeles this season. The Clippers and Lakers play in the Crescent City twice apiece during the second half (dates and times TBA).

AT SACRAMENTO

Sunday, Jan. 17 vs. Kings, 8 p.m.

Trip distance (from Los Angeles): 384 miles

There may be some busy TV remote controls in the homes of football fans, with the NFL divisional playoff round wrapping up Jan. 17. However, last January the gridiron games played on that Sunday kicked off at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Central, creating minimal overlap for Pelicans-Kings. Sacramento (4-6) has cooled since a 3-1 start, which was highlighted by two wins over Denver.

AT UTAH

Tuesday, Jan. 19 vs. Jazz, 8 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 21 vs. Jazz, 9 p.m.

Trip distance (from Sacramento): 649 miles

Facing Utah in consecutive games marks the only “series” of the entire first half of the schedule for New Orleans, but it’s likely the Pelicans will have several – particularly at home – in the second half. The first matchup with the Jazz starts at the normal local tip-off time, but the latter is pushed back an hour to accommodate TNT and its national doubleheader. On Jan. 19, Utah (5-4) will be less than a week removed from a seven-game road trip of its own, mostly against the Eastern Conference.

AT MINNESOTA

Saturday, Jan. 23 vs. Timberwolves, 7 p.m.

Trip distance (from Salt Lake City): 1,245 miles

At least in one regard, the Pelicans will be more rested than the Timberwolves for the finale of the seven-game trip. This is a back-to-back for Minnesota, which hosts Atlanta on Jan. 22 in Target Center. The Wolves started 2-0 but have dropped seven straight since then, including six without Karl-Anthony Towns, who returned to action Saturday in an overtime loss to San Antonio.

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