There was irony in Tyreke Evans’ coming back from an injury for the second-to-last game of the season and leading the New Orleans Pelicans past a top Western Conference team Monday night.
For, it has been a season wrecked by injuries.
The season comes to a close Wednesday night at Smoothie King Center against another top team, the Houston Rockets, who are in the conference’s fourth playoff spot.
“It’s been a lot of peaks and valleys, a lot of winning streaks, a lot of losing streaks,” coach Monty Williams said. “But I’m really proud of how our guys adjusted to so many lineups, so many injuries.”
Just as in Monday’s home game against Oklahoma City, the Pelicans (33-48) are playing against a team in the Rockets (54-27) who beat them just days before on the road.
Monday’s 101-89 triumph, in which Evans scored 41 points, seemed to take away some of the frustration of a difficult season. It even brought about a visit to the locker room from Pelicans owner Tom Benson, who said he just wanted to congratulate them on a fine victory.
It was one of those uplifting wins that has dotted this season and kept this team with a glimmer of confidence. There were the four consecutive victories from March 21-26 against teams in playoff positions, including the two-time defending champion Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers, who are viewed as strong contenders for the West title.
“We’re capable of playing at a high level the way we did (Monday) night,” Williams said.
“As consistent as we would like? Not all the time.”
A win to end the season would give the Pelicans some measure of the good feeling they’d like to have going into the summer. Evans’ presence certainly helps facilitate that.
His showing Monday night came three days after he left the game in OKC with a right knee bone bruise, having scored 13 points with six assists.
He sat out the next night at Houston. The Pelicans, with eight players sidelined with injuries, had the Rockets on the ropes, leading 100-92 with 4:32 remaining. However, point guard Patrick Beverley sank two corner 3-pointers that cut the lead to one with 1:36 showing. The Rockets surged to a 111-104 win.
With Rivers having been ejected during the second quarter of Monday’s win for a skirmish with OKC forward Nick Collison, Williams put Evans at point guard, then the coach did something unconventional.
“How many times have you seen me give the ball to a guy and just let him go?” Williams said. “(Monday) night was a bit of an extreme. He played the whole second half, and that happened because Austin was out.”
In the previous game against Houston, reserve forward Luke Babbitt had his best game as a Pelican. Babbitt, signed Feb. 4 after injuries to forward Ryan Anderson, point guard Jrue Holiday and center Jason Smith, scored 24 points — including 4-of-8 on 3s — and grabbed seven rebounds. His 3-pointer pushed New Orleans’ lead to 100-92 before Houston made its big late run.
The continued progress of Babbitt has been one of the positives of this season, Williams said. Babbitt, a former first-round draft choice, spent three seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers before playing in Russia this season.
Against the Thunder, the Pelicans averted a sweep against a team that had beaten them twice this season. The Rockets are 3-0 against New Orleans.
At practice time, Williams said he hadn’t heard anything from the NBA concerning a possible suspension or fine for Rivers. Williams said he was hoping it stayed that way. “Based on what I saw, I don’t foresee a suspension,” Williams said. “The league may think differently. Based on what I saw when I first came into the league, (Rivers, Collison shoving) was minor. I’m hoping that they’ll just give them the ejections and we’ll move on. Stuff happens in a game. Men are out there playing a physical game. You’re going to have confrontations sometimes.”