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Pelicans suffer tough 117-107 loss in Houston, perhaps slamming door shut on 2017 playoffs

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New Orleans played well, but for those interested in more than moral victories, this one may have stung a bit.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, a matchup between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Houston Rockets went down to the wire. Unfortunately, Anthony Davis and gang wound up on the losing end by a final margin of 117-107.

Simply put, the game featured two quality teams — yes, the Pelicans are suddenly playing like one of the better squads in the league — who traded hard blows throughout. Houston was able to gain some momentum in the fourth quarter, yet each time the Pelicans had an answer. With 1:45 remaining, New Orleans trailed by only two, but then the mistakes came in rapid succession. Solomon Hill was whistled for a foul on James Harden behind the three point line. Three points for Houston. Following a Boogie turnover, the likely MVP candidate drilled a three-pointer. Another three points. After an E’Twaun Moore missed three, Patrick Beveley got to the foul line. Although the Pest made only one of two, the damage was done: a nine-point Houston advantage with 50 seconds left in the game.

One mini-run by the Rockets at the end of the game was the difference between a win and a loss. There’s no doubt the Pelicans could have done some things differently, namely played a little smarter down the stretch, but it’s hard to fault their overall effort and Alvin Gentry agreed in his post-game comments.

“I thought we played well. Once again, you’re playing against a great team, with a great player, and arguably the MVP of the league. He made plays down the stretch; we weren’t able to make them. That’s what it came down to.”

Although, this one falls in the good loss category, it’s hard to dismiss the fact it still felt like a punch-to-the-gut loss because New Orleans is fast running out of time to finagle their way into the postseason. With Denver prevailing in Indiana tonight, the Pelicans now sit five games in back of the Nuggets with only 10 games left on the schedule.

The slow start out of the All-Star break should have read as the writing on the wall, but I applaud those who continued to keep playoff hopes alive. New Orleans hasn’t had much success during the Dell Demps era — and even less during Gentry’s — so it’s not hard to fathom that this recent glimmer provided a somewhat enjoyable ride. Important basketball games with less than a month remaining in the season while March Madness reigns supreme is fun stuff.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis was once again the leading scorer as he finished with a line of 33 points, 16 rebounds and three steals. DeMarcus Cousins, when he wasn’t being hassled by referees time and again for reacting to every Ryan Anderson flop (seriously, it was ridiculous), was solid too: 29 points, six rebounds, five threes, four assists and four blocks. In support, Jrue Holiday found his outside shot for the first time this season against the Rockets as he deposited four threes and had 18 points, nine assists, three steals and two blocks.

As for the rest of the roster, they could have performed better. Solomon Hill looked ready to make a mark on the game after canning three triples in the first half but failed to add another point after intermission. E’Twaun Moore and Jordan Crawford combined for 18 points, however with Tim Frazier and Dante Cunningham failing to register a single point, the role players floundered a little too much to come up with another trademark win.

For the game, the Rockets dominated the points in the paint battle (54-30), yet Gentry stated he wasn’t bothered by this fact. Not sure I agree. I understand that Harden is going to get his close to the rim and that the Rockets didn’t hammer the Pelicans down low per se, but giving up 15 offensive rebounds which led to a bunch of putbacks by an undersized squad should have lit a fuse somewhere.

The game plan was understandable — keep the floor spread to give the Pelicans driving lanes — but the execution and effort were not supreme, say on the Rockets’ level. To win on the road against one of the best teams league requires elite, special play. Only three players for New Orleans tallied an offensive rebound. Conversely, eight guys under Mike D’Antoni accomplished the same feat.

For instance, late in the game, New Orleans tried to hit Anthony Davis in the post. The team failed to get him the ball as Trevor Ariza prevented the entry pass and AD didn’t seem to battle as hard as he should have. (Btw, seriously, opposing small forwards wrecking plans down low has got to stop by the start of next season.) Consequently, Holiday launched a three-point shot and missed. Davis, with a 218-pound Ariza in between him and the rebound, never made an attempt to go after the ball. That’s just troublesome to watch for a team supposedly treating every game here on out as a must win.

Meanwhile, the Rockets pounded the glass on seemingly every shot attempt throughout the night. New Orleans is a much better basketball team than they were three weeks ago, but they need to match the effort of the best teams in the league on every single play with their backs against the wall. Consistently doing enough small things that leads to wins is something we need to watch for carefully next season. Whether a different coach can change this mindset among the players is up for debate but something has got to give.

Anyways, up next, the Pelicans travel to Denver to face the Nuggets on Sunday. It’s pretty simple: New Orleans must leave the Mile High City with the victory if they want to keep their playoff hopes on life support.