And then, there was light.
It was not a road trip of Biblical proportions but it was a road trip which provided a glimmer of light for the New Orleans Pelicans.
New Orleans completed its most successful trip of the season, winning three out of four games, with a 95-91 win at Memphis Wednesday night.
New Orleans built a 50-43 halftime lead on the strength of 55 percent shooting from the field. The Pelicans finished at 49 percent from the field.
The normally defensive-minded Grizzlies forgot to defend Solomon Hill, who found himself wide open on short-corner 3-pointers from the left side much of the night.
Hill finished with a team-best and season high 23 points, including 8-of-11 field goals. He was 4-of-5 from 3-point range. Anthony Davis had a modest, quiet evening with 18 points, seven rebounds and two blocks but came up big late.
Per usual, Jrue Holiday was solid with 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Most surprising and pleasing was the performance of Alexis Ajinca, who got the start at center and produced 12 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots. The 12 points were his second highest output of the season while the 10 boards were a season best.
Most pleasing were the fact that New Orleans defended well, holding Memphis to just 37 percent from the field, including just 6-of-33 from 3-point range and the fact that the Pelicans, a poor road team, showed poise in responding to a huge fourth quarter run by the Grizzlies to secure the win.
The Pelicans had a 77-61 lead going to the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies pulled with 84-83 on a Zach Randolph layup with 3:34 to play and you could feel it slipping away.
Then, Hill buried a corner 3-ball and Davis connected on a jumper from the free throw line to make it 89-83 with 2:47 to play.
Memphis came back again as Vince Carter drained a 3-pointer from the left elbow to make it 92-91 with 48 seconds left but Davis answered with a 23-footer, with a foot on the line, to make it 94-91 with 38 seconds left. Carter then missed a contest 3-point attempt and Randoph missed the follow-up.
Holiday could have put the game away but he missed two free throws with 17 seconds left. Mike Conley then missed a long 3-point attempt and Langston Galloway made the second of two free throws with two seconds left to seal the deal.
At 23-34, the Pelicans still have 25 games to make a run at the eighth spot in the west. Denver holds that spot right now (25-31) and the Nuggets lost to Minnesota last night to bring New Orleans within two and a half games of the Nuggets. Sacramento and Portland are sandwiched in between Denver and the Pelicans with the Timberwolves just a half game behind New Orleans.
With the playoff hopes still alive, it may be less likely that the Pelicans opt to trade an asset, namely Holiday or Tyreke Evans, prior to the trading deadline Feb. 23.
Ajinca could be the wild card. After registering DNP’s in 22 of 23 games, Ajinca has played 19 and 25 minutes in the last two games, returning to the starting lineup as Alvin Gentry has gone back to a bigger lineup.
New Orleans will need to get Buddy Hield back on track. After being named NBA Rookie of the Month for December, Hield has struggled a bit of late, averaging just 6.5 points in his last 13 games, shooting just 37 percent from the field.
The Pelicans need more from Evans. With career averages of 16.3 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds, Evans has not regained that form as of yet, averaging just 9.5 points, 3.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per contest off the bench for New Orleans. He is shooting just 40 percent from the field which is not what you hope for from a player whose game is slashing and getting to the rim.
New Orleans hits the All-Star break on a high and still solidly in contention for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western conference.
In the minds of many observers, the eighth spot is achievable with Denver and perhaps the young Timberwolves being the teams to beat, though Portland has Damian Lillard and the Kings have DeMarcus Cousins.
In the minds of others, the chase for eight is fool’s gold, knocking the Pelicans out of the lottery and earning them another four game sweep or five game dismissal in the opening round of the playoffs against Golden State.
The Pelicans will enjoy a week off before hosting Houston as James Harden invades Smoothie King Center, along with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson next Thursday. A pair of road games at Dallas and Oklahoma City follow. The Pelicans will be at home for 12 games and on the road for 13 the rest of the way.
There is still pulse from the Pelicans this season. Enjoy All-Star weekend and watching Davis perform in the game and Hield perform in the Rising Stars Challenge.