The New Orleans Pelicans often say after a loss that they have to learn from it as they move forward.
One thing the Pelicans probably should have learned by now is that they have to fight for what they want. Sometimes almost literally.
The Toronto Raptors on Wednesday were the third consecutive opponent who beat the Pelicans at Smoothie King Center to attribute their more physical play down the stretch as a key to their success.
“The difference in the game was our physicality at the end,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, echoing players from the Portland Trail Blazers on March 14 and Memphis Grizzlies on March 12. “(The Pelicans) brought it to us early. No matter how many guys they had out, you have to bring that toughness.”
As the Pelicans get set to play at the Atlanta Hawks (31-35) on Friday followed by the Miami Heat (46-20) at home on Saturday, that bears watching. Eleven of New Orleans’ final 15 games are against opponents in the playoff race, who can be certain to bring a surly attitude and physical play.
The Pelicans, already depleted by season-ending injuries to three key players, were without All-Star power forward Anthony Davis, who had an upper respiratory infection. However the Raptors were without center Jonas Valanciunas, a physical player. Davis practiced Thursday and will play Friday.
Asked if being physical down the stretch was even an issue for his team, Pelicans coach Monty Williams said, “It is an issue,” and that Toronto’s “22 offensive rebounds were a case in point.”
He was asked if he was disappointed or surprised that his team didn’t get more physical, rougher, more intense, with victory in the balance.
“I’m frustrated after losses just like anyone else,” Williams said. “The reality is we have Brian Roberts at the point guard position playing against All-Stars, Tyreke (Evans) is a shooting guard playing small forward. (Wednesday) night, we had our second-round pick (rookie Jeff Withey) starting at the power forward spot and Greg (Stiemsma) starting at center, and we had a chance to win. How can you be disappointed at that?”
Stiemsma played 14:44 and grabbed one rebound. He had four fouls, which Williams said affected his getting into rhythm. However, the fouls were not of a big-bodied player forcing his will or playing with abandon. Meanwhile, the player against whom he was matched — Tyler Hansbrough — set the tone with his six offensive rebounds for the Raptors to play more aggressively.
Asked if Stiemsma has given the Pelicans the physical play they sought when he was signed, Williams said, “He’s had his moments.”
Williams pointed to the “man-on-man physical plays” made by the Raptors and said that’s why he was proud of the 10 rebounds off the bench by Al-Farouq Aminu, who also had a team-high 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
“He was about the only guy that was willing to mix it up and rebound out of his area,” Williams said.
In the Hawks, the Pelicans are meeting a team that has turned things around. Injuries to All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, center Pero Antic, power forward/center Gustavo Ayon and forward DeMarre Carroll led to the Hawks losing 14 of 15 games from Feb. 4 to March 8.
All except Ayon have returned, with Antic having missed 17 games from late January to early March due to a stress fracture in his right ankle. After a heart-wrenching 109-108 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers on March 8, the Hawks have won five in a row. They now are trying to advance from the eighth playoff spot to the sixth, where they won’t have to meet likely top seed Indiana (50-18).
or two-time defending champion Miami.
The Pelicans beat the Hawks 105-100 at Smoothie King on Feb. 5 by outrebounding them 50-38, getting 13 offensive rebounds.
Davis had 27 points and 10 rebounds to lead the way.
The Heat, meanwhile, has lost six of its past nine games, including at Boston on Wednesday night. LeBron James sat out that game with back spasms. The Heat had won eight in a row from Feb. 11 to March 3 before this recent slide. Miami will come into Friday’s game having played Thursday at Memphis.