New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins and Washington Wizards guard John Wall have a bond that goes back to their playing days at the University of Kentucky.
The pair has something else in common: Neither of their teams can quite get into a positive groove this season.
The Wizards (16-14) enter the first meeting of the season against the Pelicans (15-15) coming off a 106-99 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. Washington is 5-5 over its past 10 games with a handful of spotty performances mixed in with some uplifting outings.
There is no shame in falling to the reigning Eastern Conference champions, especially since the Cavaliers have won 18 of 19 games and LeBron James is once again playing as a Most Valuable Player candidate. Tied after the second and third quarters, Washington lost steam late, scoring only 16 points in the final period while James finished with his fourth triple-double in five games.
"Shots just didn't go in," said Washington's Bradley Beal, who had 27 points in 43 minutes but finished 1 of 6 from the field in the fourth quarter. "I feel like there were a lot of good looks, a lot of open threes, a lot of easy ones at the rim. A few turnovers that hurt us. All in all, we feel like we had good shots, they just didn't drop."
Injuries explain part of Washington's uneven season and why Beal played heavy minutes against Cleveland.
Wall had 15 points and 10 rebounds in his third game back after missing nine games due to a knee injury. Washington played without Otto Porter (hip) and opened the second half with its other starting forward, Markieff Morris, being checked out after taking a blow to his neck.
Yet maintaining effort and focus, particularly on the defensive end, also is playing a role. Cavaliers center Kevin Love scored 25 points and sank four of Cleveland's 14 3-pointers.
Another challenge comes Tuesday against the Pelicans in the form of Cousins and fellow star big man Anthony Davis.
"I ain't going to lie, it's going to be a bloodbath, probably," Wizards center Marcin Gortat said after practice Monday, via the Washington Times. "It's going to be a very, very tough matchup for me and (Morris), for all of our bigs. It's going to be a challenge. These two are hands down the best in the league."
There is no arguing that last statement. Cousins ranks top five in the league in scoring (26.2) and rebounding (12.2) while averaging 1.5 blocked shots per game. Davis isn't far behind in either category with 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds.
Yet there is a similar sideways story with New Orleans, which has alternated losses and wins over its past nine games. Part of the tale involves the grand experiment of playing two big men together in the increasingly small-ball NBA world. Recently a primary concern involves the defense. The Pelicans have surrendered at 100 points in 11 consecutive games.
New Orleans fell in overtime to the Denver Nuggets 117-111 on Friday despite leading by 10 points entering the fourth quarter. Cousins, an unrestricted free agent next summer, scored 29 points.
Davis, who played the final 3:33 of regulation and the overtime period despite rolling his left ankle, had 28 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.
"I just wanted to play," Davis said.
Denver sank 16 3-pointers while New Orleans committed 19 turnovers.
"We had turnovers and we have to run them off the line, they got hot from three," Davis said.
New Orleans is tied for 27th in the NBA with an average of 15.9 turnovers per game. With Wall running the floor, Washington excels at turning mistakes into points.
"That's been our Achilles heel the whole season," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "We must learn to protect the ball; we have way too many live turnovers. You know, there is just no way of defending a live turnover."
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