The New Orleans Pelicans came flying home on the strength of a three-game road sweep with a chance to have their best winning streak of the young season.
However, after a tough 100-97 loss Wednesday night to the Dallas Mavericks, the Pelicans (9-9) now find themselves eager to hold on to the momentum they created, and that may be difficult.
The Pelicans face a bigger challenge Friday night at New Orleans Arena against the Oklahoma City Thunder (13-4), one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Unlike the Mavericks, who had lost four in a row before a home win against Charlotte on Tuesday, the Thunder has been on a roll. It lost Wednesday at surprising Portland, but had won eight consecutive games before that.
“Regardless of their winning streak, they’re a good team anyway,” coach Monty Williams said. “They have a lot of guys who’ve been together for a while.
“I’d like to think we’re going to play better than we did (Wednesday) night from an execution standpoint. We have to to have a chance to compete against OKC.”
The Thunder reached the NBA Finals two seasons ago and was a favorite to return last season before point guard Russell Westbrook was lost in the playoffs with a lateral meniscus tear. Even after a second procedure on the knee before training camp, he returned sooner than expected, on Nov. 3 against Phoenix.
Since then, they have won 12 of 14 games, with the two losses coming at the Los Angeles Clippers, another contender for the conference title, and by one point at hot-shooting Golden State. Small forward Kevin Durant, considered by many as the second-best player in basketball, Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka form as talented a trio as there is in the league.
A loss Friday would give the Pelicans back-to-back setbacks in the middle of a spread out homestand, with the Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies and their big front lines coming in next week. And, it would be New Orleans’ third consecutive home loss, going back to the painful Nov. 26 one-point setback to Golden State.
So immediately after the loss to Dallas, Williams spent a lot of time encouraging his team. It had just come off back-to-back road wins Sunday and Monday, including one in triple overtime at Chicago that he said likely took a lot out of his team.
“I told them not to hang their heads,” he said. “We made a lot of mistakes that were just not like us, but they are correctable.”
Thursday’s practice was spent on improving execution, for the most part. During Oklahoma City’s eight-game winning streak, it held five opponents to 95 points are fewer and three below 89.
“(Practice) was mostly mental,” said point guard Jrue Holiday. “We did a lot of film study.”
Williams also wants to find a way to get the Pelicans bench more productive. He saw its lack of contributions as key to Wedneday’s loss. Reserves scored 10 points — eight by guard/forward Tyreke Evans and two by backup point guard Brian Roberts. Evans shot 1-of-9, getting the bulk of his points on six free throws. Anthony Morrow, who is third in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, went 0-of-5, including 0-of-4 on 3-point attempts.
However, Ryan Anderson, the leader of the second unit, has replaced injured Anthony Davis in the starting lineup, taking away from the bench. Williams said more is still needed from the reserves.
“(Dallas) went on a 15-2 run against our bench between the third and fourth quarters,” Williams said. “Those are things that can’t happen.”
In the Pelicans’ quest to get a big home victory, Holiday has a key matchup against Westbrook. Holiday has averaged 19.0 points and 10.7 assists the past four games as he continues to have a solid start to the season. Against Dallas, he had 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-5 on 3-point attempts, and nine assists.
Westbrook, who is averaging 20.6 points, 5.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds, brings a different style and attributes than most point guards, even though many now are very athletic and skillful. He helped OKC avenge the loss to Golden State by scoring 34 points, including the winning 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left in overtime on Nov. 29.
Holiday, considered an excellent on-ball defender, was obtained by the Pelicans for matchups such as this one.
“I think it’s a challenge every game, especially in the West,” Holiday said. “He’s athletic, if not the most athletic. For one, you have to keep him off the boards. Two, it’s definitely going to take more than one just person guarding him.
“He’s one of those guys who’s going to get a lot of shots. He’s one of the fastest guys in the league. I’m going to need help coming off screen-and-rolls. If it’s in transition, everybody’s going to have to help off on him.”