The New Orleans Pelicans are pleased to be playing better as they move forward without three key players sidelined by injuries.
But improved play has not translated to victories. The Pelicans’ past three games have been close, but their losing streak is now at seven.
After the Pelicans wasted a 35-point performance by guard Eric Gordon in a three-point home loss to Houston on Wednesday, coach Monty Williams had his team working on late-game situations in Friday’s practice.
“Turnovers down the stretch, they hurt you,” Williams said. “And I thought we didn’t handle Eric being trapped well. We have counters for that, and we didn’t handle it well.”
At 7 p.m. Saturday, the Pelicans (15-23) play Golden State for the third time this season. With Gordon succeeding in an expanded role to help make up some for the scoring lost after injuries to forward Ryan Anderson, point guard Jrue Holiday and swingman Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans know teams will adopt Houston’s plan of putting two players on Gordon to force him to pass.
The Pelicans did not make the Rockets pay. Gordon shot 11-of-17, including 6-of-9 on 3-pointers, and dished out six assists. The rest of the Pelicans shot 16-of-41 (34.0 percent), including 2-of-11 (18.2) on 3-point tries.
In the fourth quarter, Gordon was held to one shot. The rest of the Pelicans shot 6-of-16 and turned the ball over four times.
“We’re not that experienced toward the end of games,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be an adjustment. We all learn from that, and we’ll get better.”
The adjustment in Friday’s practice was about spacing, said Brian Roberts, who is starting at point guard. Holiday (fractured right tibia) is expected to be out for a month.
“Teams are going to try to trap Eric,” Roberts said. “For us, the other four on the floor, we have to do a better job of spacing and making ourselves available when they come to trap (Gordon) or blitz him.”
The Pelicans led for much of the recent games which, Roberts said, gives them something to build on.
“It’s frustrating to feel that you’re in control of games and, at some point, it just kind of shifts and a team finds a way to win,” he said. “But what’s encouraging is that we feel we’re getting better and we’re putting ourselves in position to win with this young group. The next step is to find a way to push through and get that win.”
Having a consistent third option would help. Evans, who has a sprained left ankle and bone bruise, practiced Friday, but he’s likely a game-time decision for Saturday night.
Like Gordon, Evans is adept at driving to the basket. In particular, Evans flourishes on drives in transition, and that could provide 3-point opportunities for Gordon and others — something the team has sorely missed since Anderson went down with two herniated disks in his neck Jan. 3 at Boston.
For now, the ball is in the hands of Gordon, who has scored 20 points on more in five of the team’s past seven games.
Against Golden State, he likely will be guarded by shooting guard Klay Thompson, who’s 6-foot-7. If not Thompson, it will be small forward Andre Iguodala, who’s 6-6, a good defender and more athletic than Thompson.
There will be other challenges. Thompson (19.3 ppg) is second in the NBA in 3-pointers made, and he teams with likely All-Star Stephen Curry (23.0) to form the league’s highest-scoring backcourt.
Golden State, which was 25-15 going into Friday night’s game at Oklahoma City, had won 11 of its past 12 games before losing Wednesday at home to Denver.
The Warriors have beaten the Pelicans twice this season, including a 102-101 victory at the New Orleans Arena on Nov. 26 when a 3-pointer by Gordon rimmed out with 2 seconds left.
Roberts said the Pelicans just need to make it uncomfortable for the Warriors, who thrive on 3s by Curry and Thompson, particularly on the fast break.
“When they play a pretty, clean game, that’s when they excel,” Roberts said. “If we can be a little physical, try to get up on them on defense, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”