If ever there were a time for the New Orleans Pelicans to make a northward move in the NBA standings, it is now.
Coming off two blowout victories on the road against the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat before the Christmas break, the Pelicans (17-16) will take on the Brooklyn Nets (12-21) on Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center.
It is the first of five home games in an eight-game stretch against manageable competition that could allow New Orleans to gain some needed daylight in the Western Conference playoff race.
Only two of the Pelicans' next eight opponents have winning records.
"It's good for us, especially going into the break," New Orleans backup guard Ian Clark said after scoring a season-high 19 points Saturday in a 109-94 victory over the Heat. "Obviously we want to keep rolling, make sure we don't have any slippage. For us, it's building blocks, and we know that. It's coming down the stretch, especially when we come back from Christmas and the New Year.
"We have to start buckling down and have the foundation leading up to All-Star (break), and after All-Star getting ready to make a playoff push."
The Pelicans, who beat the Magic 111-97 on Friday night, have shown they can score at will. They rank seventh in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and only their inability to protect the basketball has hindered their overall performance.
Against Orlando and Miami, the Pelicans limited their live-ball turnovers, which helped them hold both teams under 100 points. Until those two victories, New Orleans had not held an opponent under 108 points in a month.
New Orleans committed only 14 turnovers against the Heat, raising its record to 11-4 in games when committing 15 or fewer turnovers. The Pelicans average 16.4 turnovers, 28th in the league.
Not only were the Pelicans able to rest their starters in the fourth quarter Saturday, but they also got three days to rest. Brooklyn, which lost 109-97 at San Antonio on Tuesday night, comes to New Orleans to play the second game of a back-to-back.
New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said his team has to buckle down and defeat .500 or sub-.500 teams if it is to make the playoffs.
"We can't really worry about the Golden States, Houstons and San Antonios and those elite teams right now," Gentry said recently. "We have to start with beating the teams near us in the standings -- like Denver, Portland and Utah -- and build our record that way.
"Those games are the ones you look at when the season is almost over and see some losses that could've been wins and see they're a game or two ahead in the standings, and those are the ones that can either keep you out of the playoffs entirely or be the difference between the seven seed and the five seed."
The Pelicans and Nets split their two games last season, with each team winning on the opponent's home court. In Brooklyn's 143-114 victory in January, the Nets recorded the second-most points ever given up in Pelicans franchise history.
In two games against New Orleans last season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, D'Angelo Russell averaged 19.0 points and 6.5 assists, but he is sidelined following knee surgery. The Tuesday loss in San Antonio was Brooklyn fifth in six games.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is playing well for Brooklyn, averaging nearly 15 points on 48 percent shooting.
"I told the guys that's how we're going to be measured, by our progress, our improvement, so we've got to keep our habits in check," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "We've really got to be dedicated to this team cause that we're so involved in right now. But I do feel like we're getting better. I'd like to see us take off a little bit more, to be quite honest with you."
Copyright © 2017 TTWN Media Networks LLC Photo: Getty Images