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Field Level Media - Professional sports content solutions | FLM

Feb 21, 2024 8:54 pm

Pelicans, Rockets start ‘sprint’ to playoff contention

cj mccollum

The New Orleans Pelicans were on a hot streak going into the All-Star break, while it was a completely different story for the Houston Rockets.

New Orleans will attempt to keep visiting Houston scuffling on Thursday night when the teams return from their week-long hiatus.

The Rockets won two meetings against the Pelicans earlier this season (Nov. 10 and Dec. 23) when they were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA.

But New Orleans won the most recent meeting 110-99 in Houston on Jan. 31, starting a stretch of seven wins in eight games that concluded with a 133-126 home victory against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 14.

That also started a slide in which Houston lost six of eight, including five of the last six before the break. Their last outing was a 121-113 loss at Memphis on Feb. 14.

“It’s a sprint now,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said of his team’s remaining 27 games. “After the All-Star break, every team is looking to make a move to put themselves in a position to make a postseason run.

“It’s competitive. The Western Conference has gotten better. It’s going to come down to the last few games like it has the last two seasons.”

In Green’s first season as coach (2021-22), New Orleans won consecutive single-elimination play-in games to grab the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Last season, the Pelicans’ campaign ended when they lost their first play-in game.

“We have 27 games to take control of our destiny in terms of not having to worry about (the play-in tournament),” New Orleans guard CJ McCollum said.

Despite their cold streak going into the break, the Rockets are just 3 1/2 games behind the final play-in spot.

Houston coach Ime Udoka said he considered changing his starting lineup during the break before deciding against it. Houston has not won back-to-back games since Jan. 1-3.

Udoka said he reviewed the first 27 games of the season, in which the Rockets went 15-12, compared to the past 27 games, in which Houston went 9-18.

“We want to get back to that consistency, and we’ll get a look at our group going forward, as is,” Udoka said. “(We’ll) see if we can get back to the consistency and competitiveness we had in the first set.”

The break gave third-leading scorer Fred VanVleet (16.5 points per game) and Cam Whitmore (11.9), the leading scorer off the bench, time to heal. VanVleet has missed the past five games because of an adductor strain, and Whitmore missed the past three because of an ankle sprain. Udoka said both will play against the Pelicans.

Rockets forward Tari Eason (lower leg), who hasn’t played since New Year’s Day, seems unlikely to be available Thursday.

“We’re a young team,” VanVleet said. “We haven’t seen the best version of this team yet. That creates opportunities for everyone. We have to get back to playing the way we know we’re capable of playing. We’ve shown this season that we can compete at a high level.”

–Field Level Media

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