Never-ending injury list gives Pelicans’ Austin Rivers an opportunity

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Pelicans guard Austin Rivers shoots as Suns forward Shavlik Randolph defends at the Smoothie King Center on April 9, 2014. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Pelicans guard Austin Rivers shoots as Suns forward Shavlik Randolph defends at the Smoothie King Center on April 9, 2014.

As the Pelicans limp home for the final two games of their season, that guard Austin Rivers is not one of the walking wounded is a departure from last season.

Rivers broke his hand in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 6, 2013, and he missed the last 20 games of the season.

Rivers’ improving play, albeit gradual, is not a departure. He had begun to do that nearly a month before the injury occurred last season.

The Pelicans, who had eight players out injured in Saturday’s 111-104 loss at Houston, host Oklahoma City at 7 p.m. Monday at the Smoothie King Center.

New Orleans is looking to end an eight-game losing streak. Rivers is looking to take another step and end the season with confidence.

“I just want to finish the season strong and continue doing what I’ve been doing, getting better,” he said.

He will have ample opportunity because the playing time will be there. In a 116-94 loss to the Thunder on Friday in Oklahoma City, point guard Brian Roberts sprained his left ankle, and shooting guard Tyreke Evans bruised his right knee.

Rivers, who has spent time at both guard spots in a backup role, played 40 minutes, 22 seconds Friday. He scored 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 2-of-2 on 3-point attempts, and had eight rebounds, five assists and one steal with just two turnovers.

He followed that Saturday at Houston with another promising performance. Pressed into a career-high 44:32 of playing time, he scored 20 points and had 10 rebounds and six assists with just one turnover. The blemish was his 8-of-24 shooting.

Perhaps understandable because of the amount of minutes he played, his numbers were a microcosm of the Pelicans’ performance. Rivers was 0-of-3 with a turnover and missed a wide-open 3-pointer with a minute left as the Rockets turned in a 15-0 run in the final 2:48.

That he has gotten better this season, though, has been obvious. When last season ended, Pelicans coach Monty Williams, as he does with all of his players, gave Rivers a list of areas to improve on.

“He took it and ran with it,” Williams said. “We wanted to improve his free-throw shooting and his finishing at the basket. His free-throw shooting is not where we want it, but it’s better, and he’s a much better finisher around the basket than he was his first year.”

Rivers attributes weight-training with conditioning and development coach Carlos Daniels for finishing at the basket better. But Rivers is most proud of his improved defense, and he cites summer conditioning for that.

“The biggest thing is that I’m in NBA shape this season,” he said. “When you come out of college, you think you’re in shape, but you don’t have a clue. You can’t stay with these guys if you’re not in the best of condition. The other thing is that I’m better at studying film, and I’ve spent another year in the system and learning from our coaches on how to play better defense.”

Of course, there’s still much work to be done. Rivers was clearly upset with himself after turning the ball over with the Pelicans ahead 87-85 and less than three minutes remaining in Wednesday’s 94-88 home loss to Phoenix.

Williams said there will be another list for Rivers when this season ends. He will get more of a personal touch this time, though: Williams, an assistant coach with USA Basketball, said he will take Rivers with him for the FIBA World Cup this summer.

“I’ll have a lot of time with him in Spain and Africa this summer,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of time to just talk. He’s unfortunately going to be a lot closer with me. I don’t know of anybody who is excited about that — besides my wife.”

Against the Thunder, the Pelicans will try to avoid a season-worst ninth consecutive loss. New Orleans has had two eight-game losing streaks this season.

Oklahoma City already has clinched the Western Conference’s No. 2 playoff spot. With no chance to unseat San Antonio for the No. 1 spot, Thunder coach Scott Brooks likely will rest his starters.

The Pelicans conclude the season Wednesday against Houston.