It’s called the second half of the NBA season, but it’s less than that, and this is where the marathon starts to turn into more of a sprint.
The New Orleans Pelicans have 30 games remaining in the 82-game season. After going 23-29 heading into the All-Star break, they are 7½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, a nearly impossible situation with regard to postseason aspirations.
However, ending the season with a winning record may not be impossible, although it, too, will be difficult. And, there are positives as the Pelicans begin play again, starting with Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks at Smoothie King Center.
New Orleans went into the break 6-4 in its final 10 games, ending with three games on the road.
“We played really good basketball the past month, and to get a win before the break was big for us,” coach Monty Williams said. “But there’s a number of things we did well, and there’s a number things we have to improve upon.”
The biggest news going forward will be the return of point guard Jrue Holiday, who has been out since Jan. 10 with a stress fracture in his right tibia. He is expected to return in a week, if not sooner.
Forward Ryan Anderson, out with two herniated discs in his neck, is scheduled to be re-examined during the first week of March, and a decision made on whether he’ll need surgery. Even with a 6-2 stretch before the road games heading into the All-Star break, New Orleans is 8-13 without him, and the loss of his 3-point shooting has been glaring.
It will be interesting to see what effect Holiday’s return has on a lineup that has begun to mesh well together, with All-Star power forward Anthony Davis leading the way and point guard Brian Roberts playing admirably in Holiday’s absence.
The Pelicans have a 10-23 record this season against the teams remaining on the schedule. After playing 27 of 52 games on the road before the break, they will play 16 of the remaining 30 at home. Nine of the home games are against teams currently in playoff positions.
Away from Smoothie King Center, though, could be a big road block. Ten of the 14 games are against teams in playoff spots.
And, the schedule now is decidedly Western Conference. New Orleans is 8-22 overall — and just 5-10 at home — against the West, including 3-8 in the Southwest Division.
If they are in playoff contention as the season winds down, the Pelicans end with a schedule of, at Portland, Phoenix, at Oklahoma City, at Houston, Oklahoma City and Houston.
Of more immediate concern is that after Wednesday against the Knicks, the Pelicans play seven of eight on the road, five against the West.
“It’s going to be a good test for us,” said guard/forward Tyreke Evans. “We’re going up against some good teams in the West. We’ve got that West road trip coming up. We have to find a way to get some wins on the road.”
However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Missing Anderson, Holiday and center Jason Smith, who is out for the season, the Pelicans regrouped and began defending better in mid-January. Of late, they have made huge strides in eliminating bad third quarters, which have crippled them. And, in the recent home stretch before the break, they finished out games stronger. They also made strides of late in keeping turnovers down.
However, bad quarters still crop up. And, the biggest negative has been a disparity in the number of free throws opponents shoot as opposed to the Pelicans.
“We look at it,” Williams said. “We don’t like it. We had a number of games in which it was unbelievably bad for us.
“I think the harder you play, the more you get to the free-throw line. And, we’ve played with great effort and force. Now we have to do the things necessary to get to the line.”
That would help the Pelicans set their defense more.
And, Davis’ play really picked up after all the injuries hit.
“There are so many facets to his game …,” Williams said. “Right now, he just has to keep his body strong, deal with double-teams that are happening.
“He has to stay out of foul trouble. That’s one thing that has hurt him and hurt us.”