In the run up to New Year's Eve, few places in spirited New Orleans were grimmer than the Smoothie King Center.
The New Orleans Pelicans suffered consecutive losses, on consecutive nights, to the struggling Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks. The 26-hour dip not only snapped a three-game winning streak but served as another reminder about how fragile this team’s margin for error is.
And on both nights, in the same locker room, players lamented a lack of energy at the onset.
“We are just getting off to slow starts,” Anthony Davis said. “The three games we won, we were able to come out with a lot of energy and get leads early. The past two we have not. So, it’s been just tough for us to start the games.”
New Orleans was outscored by a combined 64-42 in the opening quarter during the two-game skid, allowing the Mavericks and Knicks to gain confidence on the road, eventually using the cushion to fend off the Pelicans in the fourth quarter.
New Orleans’ early execution will be a source of curiosity at 8 p.m. Wednesday, when they tip off a two-game road trip against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“It’s just about us coming out being ready to play,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “That’s on us as players. That’s our jobs, to come in every night ready. There’s really no excuse not to.”
And it’s that lack of focus, rather than a lack of talent, which sticks in the craw of several Pelicans’ players. A 9-9 home record is dragged down by losses to Orlando, Dallas, New York and Sacramento.
Those kinds of speed bumps have derailed a trio of three-game winning streaks, not allowing New Orleans to gain any significant cushion above the .500 barrier. Jrue Holiday admitted it’s disappointing to point to specific nights as precisely why they Pelicans aren’t positioned better than eighth place in the West nearing the season's midpoint.
“We play the right way three games and play the wrong way for four games,” Cousins said. “We need to find that consistency and be OK with being a boring team who plays the right way every night. I think it’s just consistency, and that’s something we have struggled with.”
Cousins went on to say he believes the Pelicans occasionally lose their edge defensively when they can score at will, diagnosing the team’s occasional imbalance and uneven performance. It jives with the numbers, which show the Pelicans’ No. 6 ranking in offensive efficiency is nearly dichotomous to its lowly No. 25 ranking defensively.
“I think we kind of get in bad situations when we come out and we score easy,” Cousins said. “Then, we don’t so much depend on our defense, which is an issue. When we are struggling and teams are pushing us to the limit, I think you see us as a better defensive team, which is fun. But, we have to be a team on both ends every night.”
Ultimately, however, this team will be judged on how they finish. And after a rugged December, which included six blown leads in the fourth quarter, there’s an understanding it will take more than talent to make a move in the Western Conference standings.
“We’ve had some bad losses,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Very bad losses, especially at home. But we play good basketball, in general. And no one is excited about being .500 right now. We feel like we should obviously be a lot better than that. And we still have an opportunity to run off some wins and have a situation where we end up with a really good record. But we’re going to have to finish games.
“We’re going to have to play with consistency and we’re going to have to, defensively, at the end of the game, be able to lock in and play.”
The Pelicans travel to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night in the Vivint Smart Home Arena. Here are three things to know.
1. LONG DECEMBER
In December, Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins were two of just three players to make at least 100 field goals and convert at least a 50 percent rate from the field, as well as make more than 30 3-pointers and shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range, joining only Indiana's Victor Oladipo.
2. LOW NOTE
The Jazz have lost 10 of their past 13 games, slipping out of the Western Conference playoff picture in the process. But, their upset potential is still in play. The three wins came against elite opponents, beating the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers.
3. ROAD SWING
After completing three home games in four nights, the Pelicans take to the road for six of the next eight games. They will only appear at the Smoothie King Center for one-game pit stops on Jan. 8 against the Detroit Pistons and Jan. 12 against the Portland Trail Blazers.