The New Orleans Pelicans are on a four-game winning streak, with each beaten opponent occupying playoff seedings as the NBA season winds to its close.
Two of the victories came against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the hottest teams in the league. Sandwiched between those two was a win in which the Pelicans came back from a 22-point deficit to beat the Brooklyn Nets.
However, as the Pelicans (31-40) readied to meet the Utah Jazz (23-49) on Friday night at Smoothie King Center, coach Monty Williams did not want to entertain it being a game his team could lose if it didn’t approach it with the intensity it has had in the previous four. That despite the Pelicans having to fly out immediately after the game for one at the kingpin San Antonio Spurs (55-16) on Saturday.
“I think that’s the way everybody else sees it,” Williams said. “We look at all of our opponents the same. Obviously, you can look at Utah’s record and think, ‘Well, we did this against these teams. ... We don’t look at it that way.”
“Utah got us at their place, and took control of the game. It took a lot for us to beat them the last time we played them, and we had pretty much a full complement (of players).”
The Pelicans beat the Clippers 98-96 on Wednesday with only nine available players, as injuries continue to take their toll. It will be similar against the Jazz, except with Austin Rivers expected to play after being out Wednesday with an upper respiratory infection that has has caused other Pelicans to miss a game.
Winning streak or not, the Pelicans certainly are in no shape to look down on any team, even though the Jazz has the worst record in the Western Conference. However, Utah has lost 15 of its past 19 games.
But, the Jazz has shown the ability to “clip” an opponent, as Williams is known to say. Utah also beat Miami, on Feb. 8 at home, and Oklahoma City, which has the second-best record in the West, on Jan. 7.
More relevant to Friday’s game, the Jazz beat the Pelicans 111-105 on Nov. 13, when New Orleans had a full roster. The Pelicans came back and won at home a week later.
Fresh on Williams’ mind is the duo of center Enes Kanter and power forward Derrick Favors, 6foot-10, 268, a rugged duo who are capable of dominating rebounding-wise, as was the case in the first meeting.
“We have to defend well, we have to keep them off the glass, certainly have to have efficient offense,” Williams said.
That, the Pelicans have done of late. With the exception of the Brooklyn game, in which the Pelicans started off slowly, perhaps adjusting to playing without injured Eric Gordon, New Orleans has kept recent foes in their sights.
The largest lead by Miami was eight and by the Clippers was six. The Pelicans had a 16-point lead against the Heat, but unlike in the past, did not blow it.
That type of play will be necessary against the Spurs, particularly in San Antonio. They have won their past 15 games in a row. And, while much championship speculation has been centered on the Clippers, who had won 13 of 14 before being “clipped” by the Pelicans, and the battle between the Heat and Indiana Pacers for supremacy in the East, it is the Spurs who seem to have surged quietly to the NBA’s best record.
San Antonio’s run has coincided with the return of small forward Kawhi Leonard. He was out from Jan. 23 to Feb. 25 with a broken hand. He came back Feb. 26 vs. Detroit, and the Spurs have not lost since.
San Antonio is 3-0 against the Pelicans. However, after a 19-point victory at home in November, the Spurs beat the Pelicans by just six and seven points in New Orleans.
This one will be a particular challenge for the Pelicans, coming on the second of back-to-back games. The Pelicans are 5-12 in such games this season. However, San Antonio will be in an interesting situation, also, even for a team that played in last year’s NBA Finals.
Rivers returned to practice, after going through his usual 7 a.m. workout at the team facility. He is expected to play Friday. Brian Roberts, who missed Wednesday’s game with a left knee bone bruise, and Gordon, who has left knee tendonitis, did not practice. “We’re still in a wait-and-see mode on (Roberts),” Williams said. “He’s got to get over the soreness. That bone bruise just has to calm down. Eric hasn’t done much of anything. We’re waiting to see that tendonitis calm down.”