Things just get tougher for struggling Pelicans

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki grabs a rebound against New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, left, and  small forward Al-Farouq Aminu on Dec. 4 in New Orleans. Nowitzki was fouled on the play and sank two free throws to push Dallas' winning score to 100-97. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki grabs a rebound against New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, left, and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu on Dec. 4 in New Orleans. Nowitzki was fouled on the play and sank two free throws to push Dallas' winning score to 100-97.

After Monday night’s domination at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, the fourth-seeded team in Western Conference playoff race, the New Orleans Pelicans had the look of one that is groping.

It was the Pelicans’ fourth consecutive loss, their sixth in seven games. And, they knew what was ahead — five consecutive road games against Western foes, including the next three against teams in the playoff hunt — Dallas, Phoenix and another one against the Clippers.

Coach Monty Williams expressed disappointment that the Clippers’ hot shooting got the Pelicans’ spirits down. Well, that had better change quickly, because the Pelicans (23-33) play Wednesday night against the Mavericks (35-23), who are one of the best shooting teams in the NBA and are currently on a roll.

With the Pelicans having gone 3-12 in road games against Western competition, staying confident was the key point of Tuesday’s practice, said small forward Al-Farouq Aminu.

“We have to continue to keep our spirits up,” he said. “We don’t want to start getting negative.”

The Mavericks have beaten the Pelicans each of the three times they’ve played this season, and this is the final meeting. Playing at home, certainly the Mavericks will try to jump on the Pelicans early and take away any fight they may have.

Aminu may play a part in repelling that. He had 20 rebounds in the first game against Dallas on Dec. 4 and 11 in the most recent one on Jan. 11 against 12-time All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki. And, Aminu’s ability to run and get easy baskets on the break could pose a problem for the Mavericks and give the Pelicans some much-needed energy.

However, to do that, the Pelicans have to play very good defense, and that will be a tough task. Led by Nowitzki (21.6 points per game) and guard Monta Ellis (18.9), the Mavericks rank seventh in the NBA in scoring and fifth in field-goal percentage.

“They score a lot of points (104.5 per game), and they have for the past month or so,” Williams said. “Our defense has got to be great on the road, but we’ve got to take care of the ball. Our turnovers hurt us the last time we played them.

The last time the teams met, the Pelicans turned the ball over 17 times, some at crucial junctures. And, Nowitzki exploded for a season-high 40 points.

The Mavericks have exploited the 3-point line against the Pelicans, making at least 11 in each of the games and shooting 45.6 percent on 3s. The Clippers shot 16-of-28 (57.1 percent) on 3s on Monday, which caused the Pelicans to regroup mentally Tuesday, Aminu said.

“We have to stick to our principles and what coach is telling us and make sure we stick to the game plan and just trust it,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to work at first. I think there’s a trust thing and also defending the ball.”

Said Williams: “The concerns are having done it and then not repeating the execution. So consistency is a tough deal.”

The Mavericks are in the West’s eighth and final playoff spot, with perennial playoff team Memphis breathing down their necks. The Mavs have won nine of their past 11 games and are coming off a three-game road sweep of Philadelphia, Detroit and New York, a game they won on a buzzer-beater by Nowitzki after Ellis’ defense against J.R. Smith set up the winning shot.

Heading down the playoff stretch, the Mavs are jelling. Dallas is a season-high 12 games over .500. Since its last game against the Pelicans, Dallas is 15-7.

A team with veterans such as shooting guard/small forward Vince Carter and point guard Jose Calderon, the Mavericks are fourth in the NBA in assists, averaging 23.7 per game. In their past three games, they have gotten 97.

Not known as defensive stoppers, they held the formidable Pacers to just 73 points on 32.1 percent shooting on Feb. 12.

The Pelicans’ four-game losing streak is the longest current slide in the Western Conference, but Williams said he is encouraged his team will stem the tide.

“We’ve done it before,” he said, referring to his team winning six of eight games after an eight-game losing streak in January that began when injuries hit Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday. “We’ve had this (current lineup) for almost two months.

“We’ve shown that we can win. Now, we’ve got to get back to paying winning basketball for 48 minutes.”