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Game Review: Pelicans start strong, struggles the rest of the way in loss to Houston Rockets

Another tough loss for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden scored 25 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 10 assists as the Houston Rockets defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 95-93. For New Orleans, Tyreke Evans had 28 points, 2 rebounds, 7 assists but also 6 turnovers. The Pelicans have lost 4 straight games and are losers of five of their last six.

Rough loss for the Pelicans, and honestly, this was a must win. With so few remaining games left in the season, the Pelicans can sit two or three games out, but if you can’t cover ground, there’s no chance to make it close. Remember, the Pelicans are trying to jump two teams now, not just Oklahoma City. That provides more pressure because the Thunder can lose, but if the Suns win, you’re still behind them.

{Update 12:39 pm est -- Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns lost their games this evening, meaning the Pelicans didn't lose ground in the race for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference.}

After the first quarter, I was excited. The Pelicans were lights out on the offensive end, tallying 34 points on 15-20 shooting from the floor. Anthony Davis did a good job of finishing around the rim, going 4-6 in the quarter, including 3-4 at the rim, but Tyreke Evans was the star of the first quarter. He finished with 14 points and four assists and did a great job of balancing: attacking at the rim, hitting a couple threes and orchestrating the offense.

Defensively, the Pelicans held Houston to 9-23 shooting and forced six turnovers. James Harden was trying his usual techniques to get fouls on Tyreke Evans, but it didn’t work early. The Rockets went 0-5 from three and the combination of Josh Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza were a combined 3-10 from the floor. The Pelicans did a good job of forcing some tough turnovers and they resulted in points.

From that moment on, the game just flipped. From the start of the second quarter to the end of the game, the Pelicans shot 34 percent from the floor and amassed 11 turnovers. During the second quarter, the combination of Dante Cunningham and Norris Cole went 3-11 with some pretty poor jumpers, allowing Houston to slowly creep back into the game.

Offensively, what brought Houston back was the combination of Harden, Motiejunas and Ariza. Harden, who went for 20-6-9 after the first quarter, never found a groove from beyond the arc, but got to the line seven times after the first 12 minutes of the game and eventually got the rim, forcing New Orleans’ defenders to adjust once he began to draw foul calls. As always, Harden did a good job of getting to the line and forcing some good possessions with his ability to completely draw in defenders and yet, force them to worry about his ability to initiate contact and passing the ball to open shooters.

Ariza was just as potent, finishing with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Ariza connected on 3 of his 4 three point attempts and got some easy looks in the paint, hitting on 7 of his 10 attempts at the rim. Motiejunas was the critical one. He gave the Rockets someone who banged on the boards and finished inside against New Orleans front line. The Pelicans allowed 12 offensive rebounds, but it felt as if the Rockets were always converting at the rim.

The Pelicans offense encountered a number of struggles the final three quarters. Evans played well, but he wasn’t as hot as he was in the first quarter and churned out a ton of turnovers. Eric Gordon, defended by Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer for most of the game, couldn’t get off a good shot for most of the game. He had a few good looks, but even on the final play of the game (a good play), Brewer’s long arms had a good chance of deflecting any shot Gordon was putting up.

As for Anthony Davis, the Rockets game planned him well. While Davis was off (a 9-18, 24 point, 14 rebound, three steal performance is "off" these days) the Rockets did a good job of defending him, fronting him and making sure that every jumper was contested. He didn’t get any clear looks around the rim, nor can I recall one jumper where he got a wide open look. For Davis, that’s rather rare.

That, and everyone else didn’t really play well. Omer Asik played just 25 minutes, tallying 6 points and 6 rebounds. Quincy Pondexter had 10 points and 6 rebounds, but he shot 4-10, was invisible and quite frankly, looked inferior to Ariza on the floor. Other than a nice Cole jumper and a Cunningham dunk to force a timeout in the first quarter, neither of them stood out. It was tough to watch after the first quarter because after Evans' explosion, the Pelicans supporting cast was unable to keep the momentum.

On to notes. Just two.

— Shut down Anthony Davis, man. I’m serious. I understand the idea that you have a chance of making the playoffs, but I just believe that you rather have him for the next decade plus than him trying to fight for an elusive eighth seed this year. Even on the play where he got hurt, Davis merely extended and clapped his shoulder upon an opposing Rockets player and fell to the ground. With the way this season is going, I'd rather not risk it.

— We’ve talked about replacing Omer Asik for Greg Monroe this offseason and I’ve been long against it. I think this is the reason why. Davis isn’t injury prone, but he has been nicked up a bit and dealt with a fair share of injuries. I'd rather have that big-bodied center like Asik who can battle down low and remove those center rigors off Davis’ body. Also, Asik is a better rim protector. The Pelicans have to retain him.

Get the next one. While I hope they shock us and make the playoffs, I'm a bit leaning towards focusing towards the offseason. Prove me wrong and get that final seed, Pels.