NEW ORLEANS – The season doesn’t officially end for another week, but the competitive portion for the New Orleans Pelicans’ ended Tuesday night with a 134-131 loss to the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center.
If someone asked for just one game to encapsulate what this season has been like for the Pelicans, this one would certainly be up for consideration.
Anthony Davis had a superlative scoring performance with 41 points in under 41 minutes. DeMarcus Cousins was often the best player on the floor; filling the stat sheet with 30 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks.
At times, the supporting cast played well. Solomon Hill made five three-pointers, E’Twaun Moore scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
The Pelicans held the lead entering in the fourth quarter.
And yet, New Orleans was outscored 32-26 in that final period. Davis was limited to three field goal attempts and scored only four points in the fourth. Jrue Holiday was scoreless. Defensively, the Nuggets were allowed to make 58 percent of their attempts down the stretch, including 4-for-7 from distance. Denver was led to victory by young players: Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris combined for 21 points and a grand total of six years of NBA experience between them.
Finally, the capper. Holiday making two horrible miscues on consecutive possessions. First, dribbling the ball off his own leg and committing an over-and-back violation, and then Holiday threw a pass right into the arm of Gary Harris who collected the steal.
Even after that Holiday was the one with the ball in his hands, taking the final shot of regulation with a chance to tie, a chance to postpone the inevitable one more night. And he missed.
“We can’t have the crucial turnovers,” said Head Coach Alvin Gentry. “But it’s like I said to the guys…that play is not the play that lost the game for us. There are twenty plays before that (play) that you can look at that we should have been better at.”
“All of those add up so you can’t take one play at the end of the game and say that is the reason you guys lost. So yes, Jrue made, there were two turnovers, but those two turnovers shouldn’t have been the difference.”
For his part, Holiday apologized to his teammates.
“Obviously, hate to make those type of decisions and mistakes in such tight quarters,” said Holiday, “but I have great teammates. They told me to keep my head up. Obviously, some of the best players have done it in similar situations and they told me that wasn’t the reason we lost.”
“It’s basketball, mistakes happen,” added Cousins. “To sit there and take the blame for a game that was full of mistakes…I appreciate him for trying to take that blame, but that’s not the case.”
So, we move on. The Pelicans still have four games remaining, though they don’t expect to focus as much on winning as they do on ending the season with no more injuries.
“I won’t play AD 40 minutes,” said Gentry of his plans for the road trip. “I’ll try to take a look at a few guys. I’d like to take a look at Quinn Cook, see if we can find some minutes for Cheick (Diallo) these last four games and have him play some time. DeMarcus has an Achille’s problem, so we’ll monitor that and see what we want to do there.”
The sound of the final buzzer last night wasn’t just signaling the end of the game. It marked the end of what is the team’s fifth season in the last six outside of the playoffs. If the Pelicans maintain their standing of tenth in the Western Conference, it will be the franchise’s second best finish during that same span (behind the 2014-15 playoff team).
Gentry is already thinking about next season, he knows what he has in his superstars.
“I think we can see that DeMarcus and AD can coexist and be fine together,” he said. “You put them in a training camp and you’re able to really hone in on what you want to do and how they can play together and they can be very, very effective.”
But there are questions. First and foremost is Jrue Holiday’s impending free agency. Holiday addressed the fans before the game, ending his remarks by saying he hopes to see them next year.
“New Orleans is kind of like a second home to me,” said Holiday after the game. “Obviously, with what I went through this year, and being able to have the support from the fans, and my teammates and all that. Sure, I’d like to see them next year. But, obviously, I’m going to do what’s best for me and my family.”
Understanding the business side to all this, his teammates want Holiday back next season as well.
“I would love to have Jrue back here for next season,” said Cousins. “Me convincing him, AD and everybody else in this locker room, it’s still on him. He’s gonna make the best decision for him, his family, his career.”
“Of course, Jrue is a big part of our team and we want to keep him here,” added Davis. “But when it’s all said we’re going have to figure out a way to get him to come back here and play with us next year.”
Whatever your feelings about Pelicans’ General Manager Dell Demps or Alvin Gentry, the Cousins trade seems to have been a reset button for their stints in New Orleans. In each of Gentry’s first two seasons, he’s dealt with injury and incredible roster instability. While he is disappointed at missing the playoffs, he welcomes the opportunity to finally enter a training camp with his team intact.
“You put (Davis and Cousins) in a training camp and you’re able to really hone in on what you want to do and how they can play together and they can be very, very effective,” he said. “I think we’ve got a chance to move forward. For us, we just need to have a training camp that’s injury free, where we have everybody there, where we can put in a system, then play the pre-season games and then play.”
“I like the way we’ve been playing,” added Solomon Hill. “We just gotta try to handle business in the offseason with taking care of our guys and getting the right guys back and definitely building from that. We’ll see where it goes.”
We will see. Because the reality is that this season was a disappointment. It was not a disaster, and perhaps without the underachievement of the early season, the DeMarcus Cousins deal never happens.
Cousins seems to enjoy playing alongside Davis and in New Orleans and looks forward to his first offseason with the team.
“I mean, it would have been great to make the playoffs,” said Cousins. “I’m more excited for next season. This was just a learning curve.”
“I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken as a team. Under the circumstances of how this team kinda came about, I think we improved greatly…I think this team has a bright future and is full of potential. It’s just a matter of time before everything comes together.”
“I think we made a lot of progress,” said Davis. “I think next year we’ll be a lot better. Especially after this second half of the season.”
However, the Pelicans must continue to bolster the roster. Small forward and lead guard among the most pressing personnel needs at this stage. What we’ve seen of Davis and Cousins together thus far has been encouraging, but with Cousins headed for free agency himself after next season, anything short of a playoff run could separate this duo before it ever reaches its full potential.