How much do the Pelicans want to make the postseason? We’re figuring it out

Sometimes all it takes is a play. In the right circumstances, one possession can be enough to sum up an entire game or reflect what a team is all about.

In this case, it’s two plays from the last two games that perfectly capture the current state of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The first came in the final minutes of Friday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors.

The next came in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings.

This is the time of the season when every game matters, with so many teams in the Western Conference jockeying for postseason positioning. This is a message the New Orleans Pelicans have told us they understand numerous times over the past few weeks.

But it’s hard to tell if that message is getting through based on these two plays, which involve a star (Brandon Ingram) whipping out a box on a two-point play with two and a half minutes left, followed three days later by that a usually high-energy player (Naji Marshall) stands still instead of moving to receive a CJ McCollum pass.

The Pelicans picked up another loss Monday night, ending a three-game road trip with a 123-108 beatdown at the hands of the Kings. It was New Orleans’ seventh loss in the past nine games.

Just like they did last Friday against Golden State, the Pelicans looked uninspired. Lackadaisical. Unfocused. Disorganized. They folded almost immediately when adversity hit in the second half.

While the rapid drop in the standings must scare them, the manner in which this team is losing some of these games must set off even louder alarms for everyone in the organization. The opportunity to gain some momentum and maintain a place has been right in front of them. Instead, the pressure and desperation just haven’t been there for a team in the midst of a collapse that could rank among the worst in franchise history. New Orleans is 5-17 over its last 22 games, and Monday’s loss dropped it into a four-way tie for ninth in the West with Portland, Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers at 31-34.

There is no fight. No emotions. They’ve been too comfortable standing around while the building collapses around them — and/or while another McCollum pass bounces off the field. While the Pelicans have enough talent, even without Zion Williamson, to finish the year with a better record than each of the other teams, the only way that will happen is if they start playing like a team hungry to bounce back to the playoffs.

Despite all that, Pelicans coach Willie Green still has faith that the team will turn things around.

“None. I’m not worried about how it goes,” he told reporters when asked about his team’s recent slide. “We just have to continue to stick together, continue to work and let the chips fall , where they can.”


The Pelicans’ season is on the verge of collapsing, and they have their inept offense to thank

While it may seem like everything is falling apart for this team, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. The path to securing a place in the Play-In tournament is clear if they finally get their act together.

Per Tankatahon, the Pelicans have the 28th ranked strength of schedule the rest of the way. Ten of their last 17 games come at home, where this team has a record of 20-11 compared to 11-23 away from the Smoothie King Center. Some of those home games include winnable contests against teams like San Antonio and Charlotte. Among the seven road games, two come against the lowly Houston Rockets. There are more than enough opportunities to bank a few wins and create some separation.

They also have two games left against Portland, one against Oklahoma City and one against the Lakers. Wins in those games would put the Pels in an even better position to lock down their spot.

But that assumes they will show up to any of those games with the right attitude and spirit to walk away with a win. Given how the Pels are playing right now, there’s a chance they could lose to anyone on any given night – even tanking teams like Houston and Charlotte. Matches against top teams like Sacramento or Denver only further reveal what New Orleans lacks. The schedule may line up exactly as the Pelicans would hope, but there’s no guarantee they’ll take advantage.

The strangest thing is that the uninspired vibe this team gives off often stems directly from the most important players on the team: McCollum and Ingram. They are supposed to carry the team over the finish line. They did that last season.

“For us to be good as a team, (Ingram and I) have to be great,” McCollum said last week.

But when those two are bad, things get really ugly for this team. In Friday’s loss to Golden State, Ingram had 17 points on 6-16 shooting. In Monday’s loss to Sacramento, McCollum was even worse, finishing with 14 points on 6-14 shooting while finishing with more turnovers (5) than assists (3). Ingram also chipped in six turnovers himself.

The Warriors and Kings each threw zone defenses that confused the Pelicans’ best players. More importantly, they both seemed to sleepwalk through large portions of these games.

Some of that blame falls on coaching. Zone defense shouldn’t be consistently that hard for the Pelicans to crack, even if their 3-pointers aren’t falling.

Still, most of the blame falls on Ingram and McCollum for figuring it out when their team needs them to step up. Just as they received justifiable praise last year when this team was firing on all cylinders during the stretch run, they deserve criticism for this season’s malaise.

The way that same mix of players plays regularly this season is night and day compared to the grit that became a core part of last season’s Pelicans identity. That team—and the stars who led them—were so hungry to get their moment and prove to the basketball world that they could compete at the highest level even without Zion sitting out the entire season. They played with a purpose every night. Now that purpose is hard to find.

The season is far from over. The talent still exists in this group and the remaining schedule should give them a massive advantage against the teams they are competing with for the final Play-In spots.

But how much does this team want to get there? Do the Pels have what it takes to reignite the fire and fight for their spot? Could Zion’s potential return from his hamstring injury be enough to get them over the hump?

These questions will be answered in the coming weeks and will tell us so much about the underlying makeup of the team. But more importantly, this stretch will also tell us what needs to happen in the future to prevent this kind of collapse from happening again.

(Top photo: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

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