Lewis: Pelicans keep March-ing onward

The Pelicans came into March like a lamb and went out like, well, another lamb.

But between the 108-76 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on March 1 — the worst loss of the season — and the 102-97 loss to Sacramento on Monday that officially clinched a third straight losing record, the team went 9-4. That made March 2014 the first full month with a winning record for the franchise since the then-Hornets went 8-6 in March 2011.

That also happens to be the last time a New Orleans professional basketball team by any name made the playoffs.

So in a season when that notion pretty much dissipated around the time Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday went down with injuries in a five-day stretch in early January, that has to be seen as progress.

To be sure, there are teams, even some still in the playoff hunt in the woebegone East, that are doing a lot worse these days, not to mention having divisive issues surface as things wind down.

So how much does that help?

“That’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about because we’ve got more games to play,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “But there aren’t a lot of crazy internal things going on that might distract us. I’m sure there are things going on which guys are unhappy about, but we have a level of character on our team that helps us get though all of that stuff. That’s a credit to our assistant coaches and our guys in the locker room.”

Indeed, in a time when even a dominant team like the Pacers is having a public meltdown — All-Star center Roy Hibbert recently said, “There’s some selfish guys on this team” ... and that was before Monday’s 103-77 homecourt rout at the hands of San Antonio; afterwards, he said, “Maybe we should all go to group therapy or something” — the Pelicans have been remarkably drama-free.

Tyreke Evans’ benching in a January game in Detroit for “an internal matter” has been the only visible sign of discord. And since Evans became a starter 16 games ago, he has been a happy camper, averaging 20.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists compared to season averages of 14.0, 4.7 and 4.9.

It has been a big turnaround for someone who still excels at driving to the rim but also has become an effective distributor since being moved to point guard.

“I’m still learning the point,” Evans said after dishing out 15 assists in Friday’s victory against Utah. “But I’ve always felt I could play the 1 along with the 2 and 3. We’re all just trying to make the best of it and win as many games as possible.”

That was one of the reasons Anthony Davis chose to play Monday instead of giving his chronically bothersome left ankle another night off.

“I didn’t want to sit out any more games,” said Davis, who had team highs of 22 points and eight rebounds and four blocked shots. “I hate sitting out, and I felt like I was ready to go.”

That’s what made Monday’s loss more disappointing than a late-season game between two non-playoff contenders should have been.

Although the Kings have a worse record than the Pelicans (26-48 after Monday to 32-42 for New Orleans), they seem to have their number this year, especially in the Smoothie King Center.

Sacramento’s 114-97 victory Jan. 21 was probably the poorest, effort-wise, of the season for the Pelicans, and a 96-89 loss March 3 was only better because of the final score.

To be sure, when DeMarcus Cousins decides to play like he did Monday (35 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots), the Kings suddenly become a hard team to defeat.

And the loss pointed out the Pelicans’ difficulties at matching up physically underneath the basket.

Center Greg Stiemsma averaging a paltry 2.5 rebounds in the past nine games — eight of which he started, including zero against the Kings — is a sure formula for defeat. Alexis Ajinca was getting badly outmuscled Monday as well.

That’s an issue sure to be dealt with in the offseason. That begins in two weeks.

The present team still has eight games to play, five of them on the road, starting with a three-game road swing to Denver, Utah and Portland.

“We’re going to gather ourselves just like we have after the 73 games before this one,” said guard Anthony Morrow, another player who brought his play up in March, after Monday’s loss. “Everybody in the league’s banged up these days, but you’ve got to cherish every opportunity you get to play.”

That includes Davis, whose playing Monday was welcomed by Williams because he wants his star player to know what it takes to be in condition to hopefully one day play in late April, into May and, maybe someday, June.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This franchise has a long, long, long road to go to reach that kind of status — if it ever does.

But the down-the-road outlook for the Pelicans on April 2, 2014, is definitely a lot better than it looked a month ago.