As far as the New Orleans Pelicans are concerned, one of the hidden benefits of the New Orleans Saints' deep playoff run in this football-crazed town is that the basketball season -- as well as the scrutiny -- doesn't really start until after the Saints' year is officially ended.
The extended Saints' season has kept the spotlight from shining too brightly on the Pelicans, who despite the presence of two of the NBA's premier big men are fumbling around at 20-20 heading into Friday's matchup with the 22-19 Portland Trail Blazers at the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans, losers of four of their last six games, have not been better than three games over .500 at any point of the season, and they come into Friday night's game smarting from a 105-102 road loss to Memphis, which had won just 12 of 39 games before Wednesday night's victory. The Grizzlies, playing without the injured Mike Conley, held the Pelicans to just nine third-quarter points.
The Pelicans played without forward Anthony Davis, who has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, although the team upgraded Davis Thursday from doubtful to questionable for Portland.
Still, the Pelicans have much work to do. The loss to Memphis was the Pelicans' seventh against a sub-.500 team, and New Orleans now holds just a one-game lead over the L.A. Clippers, who have won eight of their last 11 games, for the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference.
DeMarcus Cousins scored 29 points in the loss, and he sounded an alarm after the loss to Memphis.
"Find some urgency," Cousins said. "Start the games with urgency, finding more seriousness to our approach."
Perhaps Cousins has to look in the mirror as well. Despite boxcar scoring and rebounding nights, Cousins leads the league in turnovers and had five more against Memphis.
Pelicans GM Dell Demps, whose job is on the line and who probably needs to make the playoffs to keep it, said his mid-season evaluation of Davis and Cousins is still positive.
"We feel really good about it," Demps told the Pelicans' website on Thursday. "The best thing about Anthony and DeMarcus is they're so skilled. They're not like traditional bigs. These guys can handle the ball, they can shoot threes. They can put it on the floor, they can pass. It really is the state of the NBA -- position-less basketball."
However, Demps admitted the turnovers have been killing the Pelicans' progress under new offensive assistant Chris Finch.
"We're putting in a new system, and sometimes that comes with a cost," Demps said. "You can see the turnovers. We're trying to get away from that, trying to hit more singles and doubles and stay away from the home runs. Guys are learning on the fly."
The Pelicans won the season series from the Blazers last year (3-1) and have split the first two games this season, both in Portland. Davis has played only five minutes total in the two games this season because of injury.
The Blazers' backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum have led the way for Portland, averaging 21.0 points and 20.0 points, respectively, against New Orleans.
Portland lost 121-112 to Houston on Wednesday night in a game that ended with an odd confrontation between McCollum and Rockets point guard Chris Paul, who scored an uncontested layup as the clock was winding down and the outcome had been decided.
"I think as far as sportsmanship goes and respect, if the roles were reversed, I don't think they would like it," Lillard said.
Lillard returned after missing two games with a calf injury and scored 29 points Wednesday as the Blazers topped 110 points for the sixth straight game. In its last six games, Portland is averaging 114 points on 49.3 percent shooting.
Lillard, who has dealt with hamstring and calf issues in the last few weeks, is listed as probable for Friday.
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