A second chance to compete for the postseason is a gift that the team doesn’t take lightly. The pressure of having to make up 3.5 games with only eight to play is a far better alternative than not being able to play at all.
Even if it is under such strange circumstances.
Preparations for the playoff sprint have undergone a slight change with Zion Williamson having to go home to be with his family.
The Pelicans did play 45 games without their top rookie, winning 12 of their final 17 with Zion sidelined. That experience should serve them well, according to Alvin Gentry.
“Obviously, we’d like to have him here and we hoped he was here, but he’s not, so we just practice and we make adjustments accordingly, but there’s not any big adjustments we have to make from the standpoint of our guys have a drawn idea of how to play without him,” he said after Friday’s practice.
It helps that Derrick Favors is as healthy or healthier than he’s been all season, meaning he can play more minutes at the center position and anchor the defense.
It also means more opportunities for the Pelicans’ frontcourt reserves. Brandon Ingram logged a large number of minutes at the four spot at the start of the season, but now Gentry can explore other options.
“Well, I think we’ll use [Ingram] there some,” Gentry said. “I don’t know how much. We’re going to experiment with some other situations because I think the physicality sometimes of that position when you try to play him 35- 38 minutes, it’s a little much. So we’re going to look at some things, obviously, during these scrimmages as to how we can fill the void if Zion is not back and if he’s not playing, but hopefully that won’t be the case. As I said, we’ll use him there some, but we will also use some other guys at that position.”
Ingram has added some weight, and can take advantage of his quickness against bigger fours, something he plans to utilize.
“I think it’s kind of like a different mismatch on the basketball floor playing against slower power forwards, guys that are usually guarding pick-and-rolls for guys that roll, not for shooters,” said the first-time All-Star. “I think you just see different aspects on the offensive end that you can exploit.”
Ever the team player, Ingram will go where he’s needed.
“Whatever the coach wants,” he said. “If I’m still at the three, if I’m playing the four, we just fill in the gaps. We know that we have guys that can step up in his position. We have a shooter coming off the bench, a bunch of shooters that can space the basketball floor. It’s kind of just a different dynamic.”
Jahlil Okafor is one of those who will be tasked with taking on those minutes as well. Okafor is getting his first chance at a playoff run, and he’ll have to be more impactful, especially on defense, if he wants to see significant floor time.
“I’m excited to be a part of this journey,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of a playoff experience or trying to fight for a playoff spot, so I’m looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to the experience and so are my teammates.
“Just collectively as a group we know we’re losing Zion and we’re losing a great player, so we all know we have to step up and I know I’m one of those guys, so I’ll definitely be ready.”
As much as the Pelicans want and need Okafor to be ready, the time between Williamson’s departure and his return can’t close quickly enough.
All talented as the Pelicans are, as close as they are to turning a disaster into a fairy tale, they’ll need Williamson to get to their “Happily Ever After.”
There is no doubting, however, that the Pelicans will compete. They will fight. Because that’s all they can do after a 6-22 start, and because they’ve been built for this.
“It’s a chance that we have, to take our opportunity and maximize it,” Ingram said. “I think this experience right now is going to help us in the long run, especially with all of the young guys we have...one year, two year, three year guys that are coming in and trying to get experience in this playoff run. I think it’s going to help if our team stays together.
Here’s to that “if” becoming an “as.”
Let’s geaux Pels.