Woof, that was brutal.
Before the season, most people pointed to the early West coast road trip as a measuring stick, a test to see how well the Pelicans matched up against five likely playoff teams in an unforgiving conference.
The results of the test have come back, and the Pelicans need to study more.
Playing Denver, Golden State, Portland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City in their own buildings was always going to be a tough challenge, but even the most pessimistic Pelicans fans expected at least one win there. Instead the Pelicans find themselves losers of six straight, their 4-0 start a fading memory obscured by injuries, turnovers, and low effort.
The injuries may be the main reason the trip was so disastrous: Anthony Davis missed three games in the six game losing streak; Elfrid Payton got hurt in the Jazz loss and hasn’t been back since. But NBA records don’t have caveats, no asterisks to explain away the losses. The Pelicans are 4-6, and for fans who fear their franchise star leaving, the clouds are starting to form overhead.
That’s what makes tonight’s game against Chicago so important. For one, the team is 3-8, a much less formidable opponent than the contenders and champions that the Pelicans have met in the past two weeks. Secondly, the game is at home, which has the Pelicans faithful clicking their red shoes in anticipation.
The Pelicans are now 1-5 on the road after that streak, their only win coming against the slow-starting Rockets in its season debut. But with the exception of the loss against the Jazz without Davis, the Pelicans have been good in the Smoothie King Center. They’re 3-1 and for the most part have played with pace, energy, and efficiency within their friendly confines. Playing against a team presumably weaker than any in the previous gauntlet is one thing. Playing them in a place where you feel confident, where you know you’ve played your best ball, is another.
That said, the Bulls aren’t going to be a pushover. The Pelicans’ last win was against another struggling Eastern Conference team, and they had to rely on some luck to pull that one out. Zach Lavine is fifth in scoring, and the Bulls have fought tough against good teams like the Nuggets and the Pacers. Moreover, the loss of ball movement with Elfrid Payton out shouldn’t have the Pelicans thinking any game is a guaranteed victory. But as I said before, there are no asterisks. No excuses. The Pelicans are a losing team right now, and the only way to rectify that is to win. And a win in New Orleans feels a lot more likely than one on the road, especially after this past week. So if the Pelicans are going to get back to their winning ways, they need to capitalize on games like the one tonight.
They also need to get their offense back to the well oiled machine it had been earlier in the season and not the bucking, stalling one it has been lately. There are two primary reasons for that: turnovers and Anthony Davis. In the Pelicans’ four wins, they have largely taken care of the ball, only coughing it up a little under 12 times per game. But in the losses, they’ve turned it over almost 17 times a game. This is mostly because of the aforementioned Elf of the Shelf, but Gentry needs to find a way to continue his style of basketball without losing control.
Anthony Davis looked like the MVP of the league three games into the season. However, in the three games he’s played since coming back from an elbow injury, he has looked anything but. It is most likely because of the injury, but Davis looks hesitant. Late in the game against the Thunder, with the Pels down 8 and AD in a mismatch with Jerami Grant, he settles for a contested jumper:
The Pelicans need Anthony Davis to be their MVP even if he isn’t the league MVP. Without Davis, the Pelicans struggle against any team, much less the best in the West. So if the Pelicans are going to regain their momentum, it needs to start with him being aggressive and challenging plays on both ends. Something that sticks out looking at Davis’s performances recently: he has two games of only one block, which is startlingly low for him. He needs to be controlling the game on defense and offense for the Pelicans to remember what wins feel like.
With all of that in mind, tonight has a lot of advantages for the Pelicans. A team that isn’t a worldbeater with a defense that is among the league’s worst in a building the Pelicans know and love — this is a recipe for a rebound. The Pelicans want to show they are the team they were in opening week, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.