The New Orleans Pelicans began the NBA restart with their sights set on the Memphis Grizzlies.
After two games, the Pelicans — who meet the Grizzlies on Monday near Orlando — have a more obstructed view of the eighth-place Grizzlies in the very crowded battle for the Western Conference playoffs.
The Pelicans (28-38) have lost their first two games since returning and have dropped into a tie for 11th place. Nonetheless, they are within striking distance of a play-in opportunity because they trail the Grizzlies (32-35) by just 3 1/2 games.
The ninth-place team can qualify for a play-in against the eighth-place team as long as it’s within four games. But New Orleans has just six games left to break from a tie with Sacramento and climb over San Antonio and Portland to get to ninth place.
“This is basically a must-win game for us,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball told reporters of Monday’s clash.
New Orleans fell to Utah in the final seconds Thursday, then trailed the Clippers by as many as 42 points before falling 126-103 on Saturday.
“We’re still together, we’re still with each other,” forward Brandon Ingram said. “We know everything counts. That’s what we’re here for. We wouldn’t have come to the bubble if we weren’t trying to get in the playoffs.”
Rookie Zion Williamson has played a total of just 29 minutes in the first two games after missing 13 days of work to tend to a family emergency. He could be on a minutes restriction again against the Grizzlies.
“It’s very tough, to be honest, because as soon as I start to break that sweat, I look over and that horn’s for me and I have to come out of the game,” Williamson said.
Memphis, like New Orleans, has lost its first two games of the restart. Its hold on eighth place shrunk to two games when it lost to San Antonio 108-106 on Sunday as the Spurs moved into ninth place and within two games of the Grizzlies.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins acknowledged that most preseason projections didn’t have his young team in this strong a position.
“We’re not saying we’re fortunate just to be here and we want the experience,” Jenkins said. “We want to make the playoffs and the experience is only going to get us better.”
Memphis trailed San Antonio by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter before coming back.
The Grizzlies tied the score when Jaren Jackson Jr. made a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left, but DeMar DeRozan’s two free throws with one second left gave San Antonio the win.
It was the second straight narrow loss for the Grizzlies, who fell 140-135 in overtime to Portland in its first restart game Friday.
“I want to say give our guys credit for competing in the second half, but that’s not good enough,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to be better for 48 minutes. I think these guys are quickly learning that after two games.”
The Grizzlies lost both games against the Pelicans before the hiatus — falling 126-116 in Memphis and 139-111 in New Orleans — just 11 days apart in January.
–Field Level Media