For the New Orleans Pelicans’ NBA playoff hopes, it’s now or never

NEW ORLEANS — There was another disappointment in the Crescent City on Tuesday night.

The New Orleans Pelicans entered one of their biggest games of the season, a home matchup against the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers, needing a win. The teams entered the night tied in the standings, and a win for New Orleans would give the Pelicans a leg up in the Western Conference play-in race and even the season series with the Lakers.

The night was almost over soon after it started. Just over three minutes into the game, the Lakers led 14-0. The Pelicans trailed by 35 points after two quarters, the largest halftime deficit in franchise history. The Lakers’ lead grew to as many as 40 in what ended up being a 15-point loss for New Orleans.

The loss dropped New Orleans to 11th in the West, out of the play-in, a dismal position for a team that led the Western Conference in late December.

“I think any loss is a concern at this point, considering where we are in the standings, considering who we’re playing, teams that we’re either going into or are in,” Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said after the loss. the Lakers. “We’ve got to have a sense of urgency. We’ve got to get off to a good start. We’ve got to fight. We can’t have situations like we were down tonight, the first quarter blowing up. It’s very hard to come back from those types of situations.”

The Pelicans have just 13 games on the schedule to build that sense of urgency, and the next four are as attractive as it gets late in the season for a team trying to win games and make a playoff push.

New Orleans is on the road for two games at Houston (17-52) and then returns home for games against San Antonio (18-51) and Charlotte (22-49). Those teams have the second, third and fourth worst records in the league this season and New Orleans is a perfect 6-0 against them this season. The Pelicans are one of five undefeated teams from that trio and the Detroit Pistons, who have the NBA’s worst record.

But at this stage of the season, wins are not guaranteed. Houston is coming off back-to-back wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers. The Spurs upset the West-leading Denver Nuggets last week and came close to beating the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. Charlotte had a five-game winning streak going into the All-Star break and won in New York against the Knicks last week.

“The most important game is in Houston [Friday]Pelicans forward Trey Murphy III said Tuesday. “And that’s all we can worry about right now. I’m not going to say I didn’t know who we were playing after Houston because it’s a two-game road trip, but at the end of the day, that’s the team you have to focus on. You can’t take any team seriously.”

The Pelicans have the 11th easiest remaining schedule in the NBA according to ESPN Analytics, but the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Lakers, have the third easiest slate. The Dallas Mavericks, currently in eighth place in the West, have the fifth easiest schedule. So the Pelicans cannot afford to give away games they are expected to win.

Some Pelicans look at the score every night. Some just when they are playing. They also understand the magnitude of what awaits.

“Each one is a must win, that’s how we’re going,” Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. said Tuesday. “Each one of these games is one we can’t afford to lose. We can’t afford to take a night off or take it a game easy.”

So what will it take for the Pelicans to avoid the poor starts that have plagued them?

“Consistency. Simple. We’ve got to be consistent,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said Wednesday. “It’s 48 minutes of consistent play. When we do, it doesn’t guarantee us a win, but we have opportunities to win those games. When we don’t know, then it doesn’t look great.”

The game against the Lakers was not extreme. When the Pelicans played the Oklahoma City Thunder last Saturday, a team they were also tied with, they fell behind by double digits in the first quarter en route to a 14-point loss.

When asked about the inconsistency, McCollum pointed to a number of factors, including injuries. The Pelicans have outscored opponents by 60 points when McCollum, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram share the floor, but that trio has played together for a grand total of 172 minutes this season — just more than 5 percent of the Pelicans’ total for the season.

Williamson has not played since Jan. 2 with a strained right hamstring. Ingram missed two months between Nov. 25 and Jan. 25 with a bruised left big toe. In recent weeks, shortstop Jose Alvarado has been out with a stress reaction in his right shin, and his return date remains uncertain. Rookie guard Dyson Daniels missed nearly a month with an ankle injury. Nance, the team’s leading rebounder off the bench, dealt with an ankle injury and returned early.

The absences have forced Green to use several different lineup combinations, but the Pelicans say there are things in their control that they don’t do often enough.

“At the end of the day, we just have to compete,” Murphy said. “We’ve got to hold each other accountable. We’ve got to do the right things to give ourselves a chance to win games. I know myself, there’s been times when obviously I’ve got to be better defensively or do things the right way . Our youth is no excuse especially when you’re trying to be a playoff team. So at the end of the day, I just have to be better and we all have to be better as a team.”

Despite the feeling that things were over after Tuesday’s loss, McCollum was quick to point out that the season isn’t over. ESPN Analytics still gives New Orleans a 39.7% chance to reach the play-in.

On Wednesday, the Pelicans returned to practice in what Green said was “one of our best in weeks.” New Orleans went a little further than usual for this time of the season, but it was needed.

Green said his message to the team was that everyone needs to improve, even him.

“I’ve got to put our guys in the best possible position to be successful. And that’s what we’re committed to,” Green told reporters Wednesday. “Our players are committed to it. Our staff is committed to it. We have as many games left to keep going.”

With the timeline for Williamson’s return still up in the air, New Orleans has a chance to move up in the standings before he returns to the court.

How exactly will this happen?

“We’ll figure it out in the future,” McCollum said.

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