Daunting road stretch ahead for Pelicans

Advocate staff photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Pelicans shooting guard Austin Rivers
Advocate staff photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Pelicans shooting guard Austin Rivers

Things can change very quickly in the NBA.

When the New Orleans Pelicans came off the All-Star break, it was as a team that had won six of its past 10 games, including its most recent one.

However, Wednesday night’s disappointing loss to the New York Knicks in the first game back has put things in a different perspective. Before ending a pre-All-Star three-game road trip by beating the woeful Milwaukee Bucks, the Pelicans lost at Brooklyn and at Toronto on consecutive nights.

After Wednesday’s loss, the Pelicans (23-30) now have dropped three of their past four games. And they next play back-to-back road games at Charlotte (25-30) on Friday and Washington on Saturday.

“We have to be ready to pick it up,” said guard Austin Rivers, who scored 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting against New York. “And now we have two tough games. The Bobcats are in a playoff race. They play hard, and we beat them pretty good them the last time.”

That was Nov. 2 in New Orleans, a 105-84 Pelicans’ victory. It came after an embarrassing loss at Orlando and provided encouragement. However, one thing was lost in the giddiness of that win: Bobcats center Al Jefferson missed the game with an ankle injury.

Jefferson, 6-foot-10, will play Friday night, however, and if it’s anything like he has in recent games, that does not bode well for the Pelicans. Heading into Wednesday night’s home win against Detroit, Jefferson had five games of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in a nine-game span. Against the Pistons, he had 29 points and eight rebounds.

New Orleans coach Monty Williams has a different roster this season, but he remembers Jefferson playing well against his team last season while with the Utah Jazz. He is averaging 20.3 points and 10.5 rebounds this season. Williams hinted that double-teaming Jefferson in the low post will be the way to go.

“He’s a monster of a player,” Williams said. “I think you just have to limit his touches, get the ball out of his hands.”

And point guard Kemba Walker, an aggressive scorer, gives Charlotte a solid inside-outside one-two punch.

However, the Bobcats, who have surpassed last season’s 21 victories, are a threat because they play better defense this season under first-year head coach Steve Clifford.

With small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and guard Gerald Henderson leading the way, Charlotte is fifth in the NBA in points per game allowed (97.1). Last season, foes scored 102.7 against them. They have held opponents to fewer than 100 points in 35 games, which ranks third in the league.

“They have a really good scheme,” said Williams. “They have some guys with experience, and they make you grind out possessions.”

That’s a concern for Williams, with the way the Pelicans played against the Knicks, he said. New Orleans shot a respectable 46.7 percent but couldn’t get a consistent flow offensively and wilted down the stretch.

“Our game plan (execution-wise) was not as solid until the fourth quarter,” he said. “Defensively, we held them to 20 points. It’s just that we couldn’t score.”

Charlotte is the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, which is not as competitive as the Western. However, the Bobcats have won six of their past nine games, including a 26-point victory at Golden State and a 25-point home win over Dallas.

Washington, which features the young backcourt of Slam Dunk champion John Wall and shooter Bradley Beal, ended a three-game losing streak Wednesday, winning at Atlanta. The Wizards moved past the Hawks into second place in the Southeast Division. The Wizards, who are in the fifth playoff spot, beat the Pelicans 102-96 in New Orleans on Jan. 8.