NEW ORLEANS -- Tuesday night was another head-scratcher in the Crescent City.
The New Orleans Pelicans went into one of their biggest games of the season, a home matchup against the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers, needing a win. The teams entered the night tied in the standings, and a win for New Orleans would have given the Pelicans a leg up in the Western Conference play-in race and tied the season series with the Lakers.
The night was practically over just after it began. A little more than three minutes into the game, the Lakers led 14-0. The Pelicans were down by 35 points after two quarters, the largest halftime deficit in franchise history. The Lakers' lead swelled to as many as 40 in what ended up being a 15-point loss for New Orleans.
The loss dropped New Orleans to 11th place in the West, outside of the play-in picture, a dismal position for a team that led the Western Conference at the end of December.
"I think every loss is concerning at this stage considering where we're at in the standings, considering who we're playing against, teams that we either get in or they get in situation," Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said following the loss to the Lakers. "We gotta have a sense of urgency. We gotta get off to good starts. We need to compete. We can't have those situations like we were down tonight, first quarter getting blown out. It makes it very difficult to come back in those type of situations."
The Pelicans have only 13 games left on the schedule to develop that sense of urgency, and the next four are as appealing as it can get this late in the season for a team trying to win games and make a playoff push.
New Orleans is on the road for two games at Houston (17-52) and then returns home for games against San Antonio (18-51) and Charlotte (22-49). Those teams have the second-, third- and fourth-worst records in the league this season, and New Orleans is a perfect 6-0 against them this season. The Pelicans are one of five teams who haven't lost to that trio and the Detroit Pistons, who have the NBA's worst record.
But at this stage of the season, wins aren't guaranteed. Houston is coming off back-to-back victories against the Boston Celtics and Lakers; the Spurs toppled the West-leading Denver Nuggets last week and came close to beating the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. Charlotte had a five-game winning streak around the All-Star break and picked up a victory in New York against the Knicks last week.
"The most important game is Houston on [Friday]," Pelicans forward Trey Murphy III said on Tuesday. "And that's all we can worry about right now. I'm not going to say I didn't know who we were playing after Houston because it's a two-game trip, but at the end of the day, that's the team you gotta focus on. You can't take any team lightly."
The Pelicans have the 11th-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA according to ESPN Analytics, but the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Lakers, has the third-easiest slate. The Dallas Mavericks, currently in eighth in the West, have the fifth-easiest schedule. So the Pelicans can't afford to give away games they are expected to win.
Some Pelicans are looking at the standings nightly. Some just when they play. They also understand the magnitude of what lies ahead.
"Each one is a must-win, is how we're going at this," Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. said on Tuesday. "Each one of these games is one that we don't have the luxury of losing. We don't have the luxury of taking a night off or taking it easy one game."
So what will it take for the Pelicans to avoid the bad starts that have plagued them?
"Consistency. Simple. We gotta be consistent," Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday. "It's 48 minutes of consistent play. When we do it, it doesn't guarantee us a win, but we have opportunities to win those games. When we don't know, then it doesn't look great for us."
The game against the Lakers wasn't an outlier. When the Pelicans played the Oklahoma City Thunder last Saturday, a team they were also tied with, they fell behind by double digits in the first quarter en route to a 14-point loss.
When asked about the inconsistency, McCollum pointed to a number of factors including injuries. The Pelicans have outscored their opponents by 60 points when McCollum, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have shared the floor, but that trio has played together for a grand total of 172 minutes this season -- barely more than 5% of the Pelicans' total for the season.
Williamson hasn't played since Jan. 2 because of a strained right hamstring. Ingram missed two months between Nov. 25 and Jan. 25 with a bruised left big toe. In recent weeks, spark plug Jose Alvarado has been out with a stress reaction in his right tibia, and his return date remains uncertain. Rookie guard Dyson Daniels missed nearly a month with an ankle injury. Nance, the team's top rebounder off the bench, has battled an ankle injury and returned early.
The absences have forced Green to use several different lineup combinations, but the Pelicans say there are things within their control that they haven't been doing frequently enough.
"At the end of the day, we just gotta compete," Murphy said. "We have to hold each other accountable. We have to do the right things in order to give ourselves a chance to win games. I know myself, there's been times where obviously I gotta be better defensively or doing stuff the right way. Our youth isn't an excuse especially when you're trying to be a playoff team. So at the end of the day, I just gotta be better and we all gotta be better as a team."
Despite the feeling that things were over after Tuesday's defeat, McCollum was quick to point out the season isn't over. ESPN Analytics still gives New Orleans a 39.7% chance of reaching the play-in.
On Wednesday, the Pelicans got back on the practice floor in what Green said was "one of our best in the last few weeks." New Orleans went slightly longer than usual for this time of the season, but it was needed.
Green said his message to the team was everyone has to improve, even him.
"I gotta put our guys in the best possible position to be successful. And that's what we're committed to," Green told reporters on Wednesday. "Our players are committed to it. Our staff is committed to it. We got whatever amount of games left to continue to go after it."
With a timetable for Williamson's return still up in the air, New Orleans has a chance to make a move up the standings before he gets back on the court.
How exactly will that happen?
"We're going to figure it out going forward," McCollum said.