Pelicans lose late lead as skid hits eight games

HOUSTON — As the New Orleans Pelicans left the Toyota Center on Saturday night with their eighth-straight loss, there was at least one silver lining: No more players were injured.

After losing seven key players to injury — including two the night before in Oklahoma City — the Pelicans’ eight-man rotation survived the game healthy, but fell to the playoff-bound Rockets 111-104.

The Pelicans led by 15 points in the second half, but the lack of depth and experience caught up with New Orleans down the stretch, as the Rockets surged ahead in the final minute.

“Down the stretch, they made play after play and that was tough on us,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “We had eight guys available tonight and we scrapped, but I thought we just got tired in the end.”

Patrick Beverley hit back-to-back 3-pointers with less than two minutes remaining to draw the Rockets within one point.

James Harden put the Rockets up for good moments later with a short jumper that gave Houston its first lead since the start of the second quarter.

Harden scored 33 points, while Beverley and Dwight Howard both returned from injury to score 20 and 13 points, respectively.

For the Pelicans, the game gave Williams the opportunity to see how several players handled a heavier workload and if they would be in the team’s future plans.

Luke Babbitt scored a career-high 24 points — including four 3-pointers, while Austin Rivers finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for the Pelicans.

“It’s a really frustrating loss because we were up for almost the entire game,” Rivers said. “We played well and we are still competing against some of the best teams, but we have so many guys out it is tough.”

Center Alexis Ajinca showed promising moments as well, scoring 17 points and blocking three shots.

“We only had eight guys so pretty much everyone had to step up and that is what everyone did,” Ajinca said.

The best stretch came just before halftime, when the Pelicans went on a 22-6 run to take a 15-point second quarter lead.

Babbitt had three 3-pointers in that span, while Ajinca added five points and a big block.

“I thought we battled and we played really good for 47 minutes,” Babbitt said. “We are just out there playing hard and playing unselfishly for each other.”

The Rockets, who are trying to hold onto the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoff race, slowly cut into the New Orleans lead in the second half.

“We had to kind of pull a rabbit out of our hat tonight,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Monty has that team playing tough. They’re a tough team and they execute and do their thing.”

Jeremy Lin added 16 points for Houston, while Terrence Jones scored 10. It was Beverley and Harden that made the difference down the stretch.

“We just wanted to get our momentum back,” Beverley said. “Me and Dwight have not been in the starting lineup for almost two weeks so we understood we were going to come out a little rusty. We kind of got our groove back in the second half.”

While Houston (53-27) welcomed the return of Howard (ankle) and Beverley (ankle), the Pelicans weren’t as fortunate.

The Pelicans (32-48) had already lost forwards Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith and guards Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon for the season.

On Friday, New Orleans lost Brian Roberts (ankle) and Tyreke Evans (knee) against Oklahoma City.

Stepping into Saturday’s starting lineup were Rivers, Anthony Morrow, Darius Miller, Babbit and Ajinca. Morrow had 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting.

“The injuries have been a thing for us all year,” Morrow said. “But guys come to play and work hard and try to put us in position to win games. We just couldn’t finish it tonight.”

New Orleans will finish out the season with home games against Oklahoma City and Houston next week.