Pelicans find measure of vindication in defying predictions, reaching playoffs

LOS ANGELES – Some NBA teams and players try their darnedest to claim that despite rampant and virtually-unavoidable exposure to distractions like Twitter, 24-hour media coverage, as well as feedback from a combination of fans, friends and family, they’ve successfully been able to “block out all of the noise.” The playoff-bound 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans are not one of those teams.

In the visiting locker room Monday, following a 113-100 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, it took zero prompting from reporters to get the Pelicans to begin discussing their pride in proving cynics wrong about their season. After four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins was sidelined with a season-ending injury Jan. 26, players frequently began hearing the opinion that all realistic hope was gone, as evident by local newspaper headlines such as “DeMarcus Cousins’ season is over, and so is the Pelicans.’ ”

Two-plus months later, New Orleans (47-34 entering Wednesday’s finale vs. San Antonio) is headed for the postseason, having gone 20-13 since Cousins sustained an Achilles injury during a home win over Houston.

“A lot of people counted us out when Cuz went down,” said Anthony Davis, who’s been MVP-caliber over the past 2 1/2 months. “But we just kept fighting, changed the way we play a little bit. We believed in ourselves, all the guys in this locker room.”

“A lot of people counted us out, especially when Cuz went down,” guard Ian Clark said in virtually the exact same words as Davis. “But the resiliency of this team, the veteran leadership we have, a superstar in AD (factored into the team still being able to excel). It’s a testament to the hard work we put in all year. That put us in a good position, to be in the playoffs.”

“We had a lot of trials,” forward Darius Miller said. “But we continued to fight.”

Even with Cousins in uniform, New Orleans was still only 20-20 after a discouraging Jan. 10 loss at struggling Memphis, but the Pelicans reeled off seven wins in their next eight games. Immediately after Cousins’ injury, things initially looked bleak during a 1-5 stretch, but that was followed by a 10-game winning streak that completely changed the trajectory and outlook for New Orleans. The Pelicans have since enjoyed a pair of separate four-game winning streaks, including an active one that got them into the playoff field against some very formidable Western Conference competition.

Playing without the 25 points and 13 rebounds that Cousins averaged in the 48 games he played, New Orleans needed significant contributions from virtually everyone to get its season back on track. Davis and Jrue Holiday have each enjoyed their best seasons since arriving in New Orleans, while role players such as Clark, Miller, E’Twaun Moore, Emeka Okafor and Cheick Diallo emerged at various points throughout ’17-18. Moore ranks 12th in the NBA in three-point percentage (42.5), slightly ahead of Stephen Curry; Miller is No. 25 among all shooters in that department.

“We’re excited. We’ve done a good job of just hanging in,” said third-year Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, who incredibly had actually dealt with a wider array of injury issues and lineup instability in his previous two seasons. “We’ve had some ups and downs along the way. Obviously losing DeMarcus was a huge, huge blow for us… AD did a great job of stepping up for our team, and Jrue. Then you look at what E’Twaun has done, and what Ian has done. We’ve always had guys that have stepped up when we needed it most. That’s what we need to do to be a good team. We’re looking forward to playing in the playoffs.”

New Orleans undoubtedly will be dismissed by some observers as a team that can’t go very far in the West postseason bracket. In fact, the Pelicans probably have already heard analysts lump them, along with Boston, into the category of teams who won’t be able to overcome having a sidelined All-Star. But that’s exactly what the conventional wisdom was about New Orleans at midseason, when it dipped to 28-26 and seemed destined for the lottery. Instead, with two days left in the regular season, the Pelicans still have an outside shot at homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Saturday’s 126-120 win at Golden State backed up the notion within the team’s locker room that the Pelicans are a dangerous team this spring.

“I think if we come in with the right focus, the right mindset – obviously you’ve got to make some shots – we can beat anyone,” Rondo said. “We know that as a team.”

“We’ve been competing with the best teams in the league all year,” Miller said. “We can definitely continue to do that in the playoffs.”

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