Checklist for New Orleans Pelicans During Season's Home Stretch

Thomas Duffy@@TJDhoopsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2015

Checklist for New Orleans Pelicans During Season's Home Stretch

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    The New Orleans Pelicans' playoff hopes are bruised, battered and barely breathing, but a faint pulse still remains with about a third of the season left.

    Injuries to key players like Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson are likely to wind up as New Orleans’ downfall, though the 10th-place Phoenix Suns’ wild trade deadline moves allow a sliver of light to remain for the 29-27 Pels, currently ninth in the Western Conference.

    The eighth-place Oklahoma City Thunder, despite an injury to Kevin Durant, appear to be in the driver’s seat with Russell Westbrook destroying all who step in his path.

    But, again, the Pelicans can’t be counted out just yet. The games still have to be played.

    Detailed on the following slides is a checklist for the Pelicans to claw their way into the postseason.

    Sometimes, lists are simply overambitious—there’s no way to check off every single peg.

    How did walking the dog, fixing that leak in the roof, working out, building a patio, going shopping, getting all your work done and watching your favorite team play go this weekend?

    Exactly.

    NOLA is probably in over its head, but crazier things have happened. If the ball bounces their way, this could be the Pelicans' first playoff berth of the Anthony Davis era.

5. Get Healthy

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    The deluge of injuries that has plagued New Orleans this year has been downright biblical.

    First, Eric Gordon tore a shoulder labrum just weeks into the season. Then Jrue Holiday suffered a stress reaction in the same leg that kept him sidelined for most of last season—and aggravated it again on Feb. 16. He's scheduled to be re-evaluated in mid-March.

    Gordon came back after missing 21 games from Nov. 25 to Jan. 2 and, poetically enough, has kept this ship from taking on too much water.

    Since his return, the 26-year-old shooting guard has averaged an impressive 14.7 points on 43.1 percent shooting (and 50.4 percent from three-point land) to go along with 4.9 assists and 3.1 boards.

    Holiday hasn’t played since Jan. 12, and less than a week after news of a re-injury broke, the Pels were smacked with an even more daunting diagnosis: Davis will miss 1-2 weeks with a shoulder sprain.

    The 21-year-old MVP candidate has been dealing with nagging ailments all year, but this tweak looks to be legitimately troublesome. AD first injured the shoulder when he slipped off the rim and landed awkwardly against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 7.

    He missed the next two contests and then sat out the All-Star Game in order to get back to full strength. But then, less than nine minutes into a Feb. 21 showdown with the Miami Heat, Davis jerked his arm the wrong way again as he banged in the paint with Miami's Hassan Whiteside.

    Davis is usually a cool customer, but he grimaced and grunted in obvious pain, favoring his right arm as he hurried into the locker room like a New Yorker trying to catch a train.

    For the Pels and their fans, it was a gut-wrenching sight.

    To top things off, an MRI revealed that Ryan Anderson suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee against the Heat. He’ll be out 2-4 weeks.

    As noted by Jim Eichenhofer of NBA.com, Davis (eight) and Anderson (15) could miss as many as 23 combined games—and the Pels have 27 left.

    Davis is averaging an unreal 24.4 points (54.4 percent), 10.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. Anderson is experiencing a bit of a down year, especially from distance, but he's still contributing 14.5 points, fourth-most on the team.

    Head coach Monty Williams addressed the never-ending health problems before learning the extent of Davis and Anderson’s conditions, per John Reid of NOLA.com:

    Our guys have been through a lot. My tenure in New Orleans, we have dealt with so many different things. We're not used to it, but we know how to deal with it.

    I tell our guys all the time that nobody is going to be sorry for us because we have an injury. Guys got to step up, that's what the league is about. I made my career off of that. When you get your opportunity to play, you've got to show and prove. We always tell our guys if you don't want to be great, then step aside and let someone else be great.

    This is first on the checklist for a reason. If this team can’t get healthy soon, making a run at the eighth seed will be impossible.

4. Maximize the Makeshift Rotation

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    Williams will be forced to distribute more minutes in wake of all these injuries, but expanding the rotation would’ve been on here regardless.

    Alexis Ajinca, a 7' Frenchman with arms the length of a giraffe’s neck, has been grossly underused. He’s playing just a hair over 12 minutes a night despite shooting 57.2 percent from the field and averaging 16.2 points and 12.2 boards per 36 minutes.

    Granted, per-36 numbers can be skewed. But this is a guy who, when given a chance, has delivered.

    In the 24 games he’s seen double-digit minutes, Ajinca has averaged 8.3 points and 5.8 boards, including a 22-point explosion on Jan. 18 and a 16-point, 14-rebound outing two days prior.

    With both Davis and Anderson hurting, the lanky 26-year-old will be handed a healthy dose of PT. The Pels will obviously take a hit offensively with two of their top scorers sidelined, but Ajinca, along with Omer Asik, shouldn’t let his team miss a beat on the glass.

    General manager Dell Demps somehow managed to trade benchwarmer John Salmons for Norris Cole—a rotation-caliber, well-rounded floor general—at the trade deadline. The former Heat point guard will have a huge role in New Orleans even when Holiday returns.

    Cole's ability to spread the ball around will be crucial. New Orleans averages nearly five more assists in wins (23.8) than in losses (18.9)

    Williams has been dealt a tough hand and will be forced to shake up his lineups and rotations on the fly. But just as the players have to adjust to new roles, so does the coach.

    While he was speaking of Holiday in the following quote, Williams' words can be applied to Davis and Anderson, too.

    “We'll make our adjustments and obviously make up for his absence,” he said, via John Reid of NOLA.com. “But we believe we can get it done.”

    Not only is he tasked with trying to replace his top guns—Williams must also get his team to believe it can still win without three of its best players and leaders.

3. Beat the East

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    The Pelicans are 19-14 against teams from the West, which is impressive given amount of title contenders in the conference.

    However, that record means that New Orleans is 10-13 against the East.

    Huh?

    It’s inexplicable, really. And it’s not like the Pels have only fallen to the big dogs in the East either—some of the losses have come against the lowest of the bottom-feeders.

    The New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers have all defeated New Orleans in 2014-15.

    This is a team that plays up and down to its competition. For all of their head-scratching losses, the Pelicans have also provided an ample amount of impressive triumphs over the likes of the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.

    “For some reason, we play our best against the good teams,” Tyreke Evans said on Feb. 1, per Ted Lewis of The Advocate (Baton Rouge).

    In a vacuum, that's actually positive. But when teams like the Knicks and Sixers emerge victorious, there’s a problem.

    Injuries complicate matters, but New Orleans still has more talent than most East teams.

    Seven of the Pels' next 11 games will be out-of-conference—Brooklyn Nets (twice), Heat, Milwaukee Bucks (twice), Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics.

    Having defeated the Raptors, 100-97, on Feb. 23, they'll see just one more Eastern team currently over .500: the very beatable Bucks.

    With a playoff berth conceivably obtainable, it’s time for New Orleans to conquer this admittedly weird demon.

    It’s tough to expect a clean sweep, so at a minimum, the Pelicans should win five of those seven in order to keep pace with OKC.

2. Become Road Warriors

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    As a low-seed playoff hopeful, New Orleans must get used to life away from home.

    Despite sitting in the bottom fifth of the league's attendance rankings, the Pelicans (25th) have played slightly better at the poorly stocked Smoothie King Center than on the road.

    That’s not uncommon, though. The only teams to have more away wins than home are the Bulls, Nets, Magic and Heat.

    The Pels—18-10 at home and 11-17 away thus far—have 12 road games left on the slate. Those contests will come in bunches, most notably through a four-day, three-game trip (March 19-22) that includes battles with the Suns, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

    It’s possible that this team will be playing meaningful basketball right up until its final game on April 15.

    And therefore, every single win will hold considerable weight in what could be a three-way battle between New Orleans, Phoenix (13-16 on the road) and OKC (13-17) that comes down to the last second.

    If things are indeed decided at the final buzzer, New Orleans will be in good shape. Here's an excerpt from my piece on Davis' elite clutch gene:

    With under two minutes to go and the score differential at two points or fewer, Davis is shooting 100 percent from the floor this season, per NBA.com.

    He hasn’t missed a single shot during the most pressure-packed moments of the year.

    ...

    It’s rare to see a 21-year-old so willing to take the big shot. It’s even rarer to see him knock it down with such consistency.

    Usually we see clutch individual play from guards, not 6'10" forwards/centers. Whether it's an isolation at the top of the key or a fadeaway jumper, ball-handlers are almost always the guys who create shots in the biggest moments.

    Has there ever been another big man who's hit clutch shots like this? Kevin Garnett, to whom Davis is often compared, was not this clutch in his prime. Hakeem Olajuwon, maybe?

    Winning more than half of those 13 road games will give the Pels an advantage over the Suns and Thunder, who have 12 and 11 respective away contests left.

1. Cross Fingers

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    Making the playoffs will take health, depth, consistency, heart…and a little bit of luck.

    With Westbrook playing at an out-of-this-world level—26.2 points, 7.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 swipes—it will be tough to beat out the Thunder for that final playoff spot.

    But Durant just had another foot surgery after missing the season’s first six weeks following the initial operation. It was a “minor procedure” according to Royce Young of ESPN.com:

    "There's no new injury that's been created," [Thunder GM Sam Presti] said. "It's just a matter of discomfort."

    Durant underwent a procedure in October to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot. According to Presti, the fracture is healing as expected, but a screw inserted at the fifth metatarsal during the original procedure is rubbing against another bone, the cuboid bone, in another area, causing soreness and discomfort.

    Durant will be re-evaluated in a week and is projected to be back before the conclusion of the regular season. OKC can downplay this all it wants—but surgery is surgery and shouldn't be taken lightly.

    Despite the absence of the reigning MVP, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes believes that Westbrook can carry the load all by his lonesome.

    Durant going down again is in no way a good thing. It'll make the road ahead tougher for the Thunder, possibly eliminating what was a very good chance to take a run at the seventh or sixth seed. Long term, it should go without saying that KD's health is a major concern.

    Right now, though, just as he's been all year, Westbrook is ready.

    Supported by better talent, facing a suddenly softer slate and in the midst of the best stretch of his career, rampaging Russ won't let the Thunder slip.

    Having won three of their four meetings, the Pelicans own the tie-breaker with OKC.

    But NOLA doesn't have momentum. Despite winning two straight, the team is is 5-5 in its last 10 games and 2-4 in its last six. Having won eight of their last nine, the Thunder are currently riding a six-game winning streak,

    Even if every single thing goes according to plan—and Davis, Holiday and Anderson get healthy enough to spearhead a valiant last-second push—all the Pelicans can hope for is that the race for eighth comes down to a photo finish.

    All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com as of Feb. 22.