All about character as Pelicans near the finish line

OKLAHOMA CITY — With just a few games remaining, Pelicans coach Monty Williams says it’s all about character moving forward.

The Pelicans entered Friday’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder as losers of six straight and reeling from the season-ending injuries suffered by All-Star Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon, but they remained positive.

Williams said the final stretch and the entire season is a chance to improve without their star players.

“It can either be a tragedy or an opportunity,” he said. “I just choose to look at all of these situations as a great opportunity to get better as a coach, be in situations and learn from them. Had I had a team winning 50 to 55 games every year all four of my years as a coach, I don’t think I’d be as equipped as I am to go forward.”

The Pelicans were without five players because of injury Friday, making the chances of knocking off the Thunder even tougher. They even signed forward James Southerland to provide some depth and evaluate for the future.

There was a bit of good news, too, as Williams said Gordon’s injury is considered minor and he will be ready to go in a few weeks.

“It’s actually a blessing that what he’s having done is not that serious,” Williams said. “It’s just a clean-out, which is what a lot of NBA guys have nowadays.”

There’s still the problematic schedule remaining. After Friday, the Pelicans’ final three games are against playoff-bound Houston (twice) and the Thunder again.

“It’s crazy the way that we’re scheduled,” said rookie center Jeff Withey, who was making his second start of the season Friday. “For me personally, going against those guys is definitely going to be a challenge. I look forward to guarding Nick Collison, another Kansas guy. I worked out with Steven Adams this last summer, so I know them pretty well. It’s just going to be a fun game, and I can definitely see where I’m at.”

That’s the point of the remaining games.

Guard Brian Roberts, who was replaced in the starting lineup by Austin Rivers, said this is a good period to evaluate the remaining players.

“We kind of know that’s what these games are for as a team,” Roberts said. “We can still use these four games to propel us in the summer and into the next season and for guys to establish themselves moving forward.”

Roberts has been a pleasant surprise this season, averaging 9.6 points and 3.3 rebounds.

But players like Withey, Luke Babbitt and Darius Miller are looking to improve heading into next season.

“I came in a little bit older than most rookies, but playing is the most experience that you can get,” Withey said. “Just being thrown out into the fire, I’ve learned so much. It’s going to continue to help me when I get out there and play. I’m just looking forward to keep on getting better this year so that way I can go into next year strong.”

And perhaps there won’t be the plethora of injuries next season, an issue that has struck New Orleans the past three seasons.

“I think the toughest thing for us is going through it three years in a row,” Williams said. “We just keep plodding along with the hopes that one day we can play an 82-game season without all of these injuries to see what we can really do.”

Still, Williams has been impressed with how his young team has responded to the adversity.

“A lot of this is just character,” he said. “We’re looking at the production on the floor, but we’re also watching guys to see how they respond to situations like this and, to our guys’ credit, they’ve been absolutely phenomenal.”