SACRAMENTO – While winning six of their last eight games, highlighted by wins over Denver, Houston and Indiana, the New Orleans Pelicans (12-24) have looked like a much more cohesive team on the court, displaying the kind of chemistry that develops when players gain familiarity with each other. That everyone-on-the-same-page feel also seemed to carry over to the locker room following Saturday’s 117-115 thriller in Sacramento, with two Pelicans delivering virtually identical quotes about the current state of their team.
“Good teams win games like this,” said guard Lonzo Ball, who notched his third straight game of 20-plus points. “We're trending in the right direction.”
Guard JJ Redick, who lofted up a left-handed game-winner with 1 second left: “Hopefully with Zion (Williamson) coming back and the way we played over the last couple weeks, I think we're trending in the right direction.”
Indeed, after everything seemed to go against the Pelicans during the first two months of the regular season, suddenly the news is arriving in positive waves. Not only has New Orleans been one of the league’s best teams since Dec. 18 – ranking fourth in net rating (6.4) during that span, behind only Milwaukee, Boston and Utah – but the Pelicans have also seen several fellow Western Conference playoff hopefuls simultaneously struggle. As a result, even though New Orleans began the regular season 1-7 and had a separate 13-game losing streak, Redick brought up the race for the postseason without any prompting Saturday, noting that the Pelicans are already within range of eighth place. It’s been 23 years since a team reached the West playoff field while sporting a losing record, but it’s a stunningly wide-open chase in 2019-20, with current No. 8s Portland (15-21) and San Antonio (14-20) both six games under .500.
Asked about the significance of Saturday’s victory, Redick responded, “Any win is great for us. You look at the standings after that game, we’re three (games) back of the 8 seed. We’re fighting for our lives.”
While some West teams may be eyeing the early-February trade deadline or the buyout market as they try to fortify their rosters, New Orleans expects to soon add the No. 1 overall draft pick from last June to the mix, an injection of talent and energy that Pelicans players are eager to see.
“He's close, yeah,” Redick replied to a follow-up question about Williamson, who is drawing some large, attentive crowds when he goes through pregame workouts in opposing NBA arenas. “He’s close for sure. We’ve seen him ramp up his activity. We’re all excited to get him back, for sure.”
It’s uncertain exactly when Williamson will make his official pro debut, but New Orleans also might benefit from a schedule that finally flips from the NBA’s most difficult to one that’s much more manageable, at least on paper. For example, the Pelicans have already played nine games against top-eight East teams in the standings, but only twice against the seven East clubs outside of playoff position. New Orleans has struggled mightily against the East (just 2-9 overall), but that’s at least partly due to the level of competition. Furthermore, several of those losses occurred while center Derrick Favors was sidelined. Of the Pelicans’ remaining 46 games, a dozen are against struggling East foes. Incredibly, if you gaze ahead to March and April, 14 of New Orleans’ final 15 opponents on the 82-game schedule currently have losing records, with an April 11 home game vs. Philadelphia being the only exception.
Regardless of the caliber of opponent or the location of their games, the Pelicans have been much more successful recently in producing wins, posting as many victories over the past eight games as they did in the first 28. New Orleans also started just 2-11 on the road, but has gone 4-2 since. The Pelicans’ significant defensive improvement – coinciding with Favors’ return to action – has helped immensely. Saturday’s win over the Kings was another illustration of New Orleans playing average offensively (43.7 percent shooting, 15 turnovers), but still prevailing. That rarely occurred early in ’19-20.
“We were kind of down the whole game. It was an up-and-down night for us all night,” Ball said of Saturday’s win being reflective of several recent New Orleans outcomes, “but we figured out a way to get it done on the road.”