Pelicans at home for Western Division clash with Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs probably know how the New Orleans Pelicans feel.

As the teams get set to square off Monday night at New Orleans Arena in a Southwest Division game, the Spurs, like the Pelicans, are without key players because of injuries. The game is the second in a four-game homestand for the Pelicans.

Although Spurs center Tiago Splitter returned for Saturday’s home win against Sacramento, starting shooting guard Danny Green and starting small forward Kawhi Leonard are out with fractured fingers and sixth man Manu Ginobili, has been sidelined with hamstring tightness.

As it relates to the Pelicans (20-26), Leonard’s injury may be key. When San Antonio beat the Pelicans 101-95 on Jan. 13 at the Arena, Leonard, 6-feet-9, used his length and quickness to help hold guard Eric Gordon to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting.

“(Leonard is) one of the better defenders in the NBA,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “And, he can knock down shots. He’s a good scorer.”

Before beating the Kings, the Spurs (33-13) had lost a season-high three consecutive games. Two weeks ago, San Antonio had the best record in the Western Conference.

Awaiting the Spurs, who led the Southwest, is a Pelicans team than appears to have turned a bit surly after an eight-game losing streak and now have won five of their past seven, including three of the past four.

In doing so, backup players have stepped into bigger roles and of late have developed a chemistry that has resulted in a more aggressive and effective defense and a smoother offense.

The Pelicans have held four consecutive opponents to 92 points or fewer, including an 88-79 victory against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday at the Arena after which Williams appeared noticeably proud. He called it a “grown man” victory because of the intensity and physical nature of the game.

Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu said the current streak was born out of the eight-game slide. The team has bought into Williams’ defense-first philosophy even more, he said.

“We’re jelling, and everybody is starting to figure it out,” he said. “We were losing, and we realized that offense isn’t the only way to win games; we’re going to have to do it on defense. We started seeing that it works.”

The resurgence has taken place as second-year power forward Anthony Davis has emerged as the unquestioned team leader on both ends of the court, averaging 20.4 points and 10.4 rebounds while blocking at least four shots the past six games.

The Pelicans had been outscored in the third quarter in 14 consecutive games, which was one reason for the losing. They’ve outscored two of the past three foes in the quarter, though.

However, New Orleans has been unable to cut into a disparity regarding free throws. Even in the impressive win against Chicago, the Bulls shot 33 free throws, making 22. New Orleans attempted just 10, making eight.

That was an important aspect of the Spurs’ victory in the teams’ last meeting. San Antonio shot 26-of-31 on free throws in that game to the Pelicans’ 12-of-17.

“We have to play defense without fouling,” Williams said. “We’ve got to move our feet and guard the ball, understand who you’re playing against and their tendencies and not look for the refs to blame all the time.

“A lot of it is just us guarding the ball and make sure we trust our system if there’s a break down.”

Aminu said it likely will come down to playing smart late in the game. The Pelicans had three turnovers late that prevented them from gaining a victory in a game in which Spurs future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan fouled out for the first time in four years.

“Most of our games at home against them are close,” Aminu said. “We have to play sound; it’s not always the effort.”

Notes

The Pelicans reportedly are working on a contract to bring former Portland Trail Blazers forward Luke Babbitt to New Orleans. Babbitt’s contract with his team in Russia, BC Nizhny Novgorod, was said to be bought out by the Pelicans. He could join the Pelicans as early as Tuesday, however. Babbitt is known for his outside shooting and would help fill a role vacated by the injury to forward Ryan Anderson. … Williams said he’s told the Pelicans’ injured players that this is Davis’ team now. “The guys who are out are getting a chance to see that, that it’s his team. And when they come back, you have to fit in around him, not the other way around,” Williams said. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday is recovering from a stress fracture in his right tibia. He had said he expected to return around Feb. 10, if not sooner. Recently, he said he didn’t know how close he was to returning, but he was to meet with doctors. He was noticeably absent from the Pelicans’ shoot-around on Saturday morning and wasn’t with the team for Saturday night’s game.