MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Despite all that’s gone wrong thus far this season -- all of the injuries and all of the losses -- the Pelicans entered Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matchup just 4 ½ games back of a playoff spot in the suddenly shallow Western Conference, a fact not lost on New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry and his players.
“This is a really, really crucial time for us,” Gentry said pregame. “We got off to such a bad start because of injuries and things like that. We have a chance because no one ran away and left. Obviously Golden State, San Antonio and teams like the Clippers and Oklahoma City [are] in the top echelon in the West. Everybody else is just kind of in that group where, if you can win five or six games in a row, you can get right back in the playoff race.
"And that’s going to be important for us, because of what we have coming up. It becomes something that’s very, very essential to our season: continuing in a situation where we feel like we still have an opportunity to make the playoffs.”
Unlike in past games, when Gentry has called his team’s effort into question, the Pelicans played well enough to win on Monday. New Orleans shot slightly better from the floor than the Memphis Grizzlies and was in the game in the closing stages.
But after Jrue Holiday scored on a layup despite being down by three with four seconds left, the Pelicans were forced to foul Memphis guard Courtney Lee. He made the first and missed the second, but Memphis' Marc Gasol denied New Orleans the rebound by tipping the ball out to the midcourt line, running out the clock and sealing a 101-99 Grizzlies win.
The Pelicans could only watch as their attempt at a second three-game winning streak this season and a prime opportunity to make up much-needed ground in the standings literally rolled away from them.
“Sometimes you just get a bad bounce,” said Holiday, who finished with 23 points (6-for-14 shooting) and nine assists. “It just looked like it was a bad bounce. And from there -- yeah, it’s tough. Obviously we had two in a row and we wanted to get three to start this streak.”
Gasol dominated the last time the teams met, finishing with a season-high 38 points, to go along with 13 rebounds, six assists and four blocks. New Orleans, which ranked fifth in the league in defensive efficiency in January coming into the game despite sitting 27th in the category this season, limited Gasol (6-for-13) to just 16 points on Monday as the Grizzlies spread their shots around the perimeter.
But while the Pelicans have looked like a different team this month, they couldn’t outrun two of their biggest issues to date: injuries and turnovers.
Tyreke Evans was a late scratch after experiencing soreness in his troublesome right knee during warm-ups, forcing a struggling Norris Cole (7.56 PER) into the starting lineup. Anthony Davis also played through what appeared to be an aggravation of the back contusion that kept him out of two games and a hard fall on his wrist.
And after limiting their giveaways to seven and eight in the past two games, the Pelicans, who average 13.3 on the season, turned it over 15 times against the Grizzlies, including six in the first quarter (three by Cole).
“We had too many turnovers, and you can’t expect to win with all of the turnovers that we had, unforced turnovers,” said Davis, who finished with 21 points (6-for-12) and eight rebounds. “So, we played hard, but we need to come out with some wins.”
While the Jazz also lost, keeping the Pelicans’ postseason gap at four and a half games with seven straight home games on the horizon, needing wins is the bottom-line situation the team finds itself in for the remainder of the season.
“It’s tough winning games on the road in the NBA,” Gentry said. “I thought we allowed ourselves an opportunity, and that’s all you want to do. And if you get that opportunity you gotta try to capitalize on it. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t get it because of a bad bounce.”