What Pelicans must do to stay in playoff hunt

BY Jeff Caplan • March 3, 2015

The New Orleans Pelicans' season-best five-game win streak might have come to an end Monday night in Dallas, but their first true playoff hopes in four years remain, remarkably, very much alive.

No doubt, a sixth straight win would have been huge. It would have finally nudged the long-climbing Pelicans into a tie with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

Playing their third game in four nights and coming off a win Sunday night at Denver, the Pelicans led the Mavericks at halftime. But a poor third quarter, a stretch of seven scoreless minutes, was their undoing in the 102-93 loss to their main Southwest Division nemesis -- New Orleans is 1-3 against Dallas but 5-2 against Memphis, San Antonio and Houston.

The Pelicans and Grizzlies, both 6-5 within the division, are the only teams in the Southwest with a record above .500 against their brethren in the toughest division in the NBA.

"I've got no complaints about our team," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said after the game. "The guys competed their tails off. We just came off the toughest back-to-back in the league — any time you go to Denver, or leave Denver and have a back-to-back, you're dealing with a lot. So I thought our guys fought like you-know-what and we had a tough third quarter that really hurt us."

So with 22 games to go, the Pelicans (32-28), who haven't sniffed the playoffs since a first-round exit in 2011, find themselves one game behind the Thunder (33-27), whose immediate future is murky with All-Star Game MVP Russell Westbrook recovering from surgery to repair a broken bone in his face, and reigning league MVP Kevin Durant still out as he tries to alleviate the soreness from his surgically repaired right foot.

Without one or both of its superstars, OKC is certainly vulnerable.

Of course the Pelicans hardly have health on their side, which has made this latest roll all the more unexpected, and thus raising hopes that a surge can continue while Anthony Davis nurses a bum shoulder he's hurt twice in the span of two weeks. 

When the All-Star power forward will return isn't yet clear, but coach Monty Williams on Monday said he believes the team's leading scorer, is "close."

Point guard Jrue Holiday (leg), the team's third-leading scorer and top assist man, hasn't played since Jan. 12. Three-point specialist Ryan Anderson (knee) hasn't played since leaving a game on Feb. 23. Both players are likely still weeks away.

Davis missed his 12th game of the season Monday and fifth in a row since logging just nine minutes on Feb. 21. As was the case last season, the Pelicans have to wonder where they might be if they could only stay healthy.

Tyreke Evans (59 games), Omer Asik (56) and Anderson (52) are the only players to play in at least 50 of the team's 60 games. In comparison, eight Mavs players have played at least 54 of 62 games.

New Orleans, 12-7 since an awful loss to the lowly New York Knicks on Jan. 19, returns home for a three-game homestand with the first two being games it simply cannot lose. They play the Detroit Pistons (23-36) on Wednesday and the Boston Celtics (23-34) on Friday. The Grizzlies (42-16) come to town on Saturday.

Their next five games include two against the Milwaukee Bucks (32-27), the Denver Nuggets (20-39) and the sliding Phoenix Suns (31-30).

If the Pelicans are going to stay in the hunt, they'll need to continue to find production from five key areas:

The Norris Cole Effect: The trade that brought Cole from Miami didn't draw headlines, but he's given the club a needed boost in the backcourt, averaging 11.7 points, 3.7 assists and shooting 46.6 percent from the floor in 27.0 minutes off the bench. He has scored in double figures in five of six games and had 19 points against Dallas.

2. The Rise of Alexis Ajinca: The journeyman center didn't even play in the NBA for two seasons prior to signing with New Orleans last year. He's been fantastic in Davis' absence averaging 14.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocks in 23.0 minutes. He's scored in double figures in each of the last five games and had 13 points and 12 rebounds against Dallas.

3. Eric Gordon's 3s: The shooting guard is up to 45.3 percent beyond the arc for the season, which is easily a career best. Since his return from injury on Jan. 5, Gordon is 73-for-151 (48.3 percent) and since the start of February, he's 42-for-82 (51.2 percent).

4. Tyreke Evans' aggressiveness: Without Jrue Holiday, Evans' production is crucial and his aggressive drives are mandatory. Nobody in the league has more than Evans' 722 drives to the rim and only Houston Rockets MVP candidate James Harden has produced more points off drives. 

5. Monty Williams in control: The Pelicans' coach's name has been placed on the hot seat more than once, and at times it has seemed that he might be fighting a losing battle. Earlier this season his team was treading water in 10th place -- win one, lose one -- but he has them playing tough and together through what could be -- maybe should be -- devastating injuries. And playoff hopes remain.

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