There will be lots of intrigue Friday night when the New Orleans Pelicans host the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on News Talk 99.5 WRNO in the New Orleans area).
The re-energized Pelicans (26-21) have won six of their last seven games, showcasing a nascent ability to perform efficiently in the clutch. The Rockets (34-12) have won seven of their last eight, including four straight. One of those victories was a 116-108 win over the Golden State Warriors last Saturday.
Although the Rockets have won nine of their last 11 meetings with the Pelicans, this one could be a bit tougher.
Houston outshot New Orleans 130-123 at home on Dec. 11 -- the teams combined for 154 points at halftime -- but the Pelicans played without Anthony Davis, an All-Star starter who has shown himself capable of going for 40 when necessary.
In the first game, the Pelicans made 14 3-pointers in the first half and finished with a franchise-record 18.
Even though New Orleans led 101-88 late in the third quarter, James Harden scored 10 of his 26 points in the final three minutes to provide the game-winning performance. Harden also had 17 assists and six steals to lead the comeback.
In the video-game offensive output, the Pelicans outshot the Rockets .576 to .545 but hurt themselves with 18 turnovers.
Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday had a season-high 37 points and backcourt mate E'Twaun Moore added a career-high 36, going 15 of 20 from the field, but it still wasn't enough.
Since then, the Pelicans have found a way to close out close games. Three of their recent victories came in overtime. Their 101-96 road win over the Charlotte Hornets, by comparison, was a blowout.
"We just grinded it out," Davis said after the win over Charlotte. "We keep playing. We keep playing for each other, playing defense, and just have to come out with the win."
New Orleans leads the NBA in "clutch" minutes, which are tallied when a game is within five points in the final five minutes. Of the Pelicans' 136 clutch minutes this season, 55 have come in the last nine games since Jan. 10.
"There's a little bit of fatigue," Holiday said. "Obviously, as the season goes along, it gets harder and harder.
"But it's the same thing for them. You can really see some fatigue in both teams. But it's really about grinding it out and making stops at the end of games, and we've been able to do that."
Rockets forward Ryan Anderson, a former Pelicans player, is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 39.9 percent on 3-pointers away from home. Center Clint Capela has scored in double figures in 11 consecutive games.
Chris Paul joined LeBron James and Russell Westbrook as the only NBA players averaging 18 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
The Rockets got some good news on Thursday, with Nene expected to be able to come back from a bruised right knee suffered Monday night.
"He bumped his knee last game and with Friday coming up, why wouldn't we just make sure his knee is OK?" Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He's got to be ready to go."
Davis and DeMarcus Cousins found out Thursday that they will be frontcourt starters on the same team in the 2018 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 18 in Los Angeles. Cousins and Davis were picked by James, the team captain.
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