The New Orleans Pelicans are confident they can compete with any team in the NBA.
Building 15-point leads in all three matchups against the Golden State Warriors proves the Pelicans’ potential. But ending up on the losing end of all three of games — including Monday, when their 21-point advantage disappeared in a 125-115 loss — shows their potential for success is fragile.
A hiccup here or a breakdown there, and suddenly the Pelicans morph from contender to pretender.
Playing without All-NBA forward Anthony Davis (still listed as day-to-day with a left adductor strain) adds a layer of difficulty. And of course, facing Golden State’s four All-Stars is dangerous.
But the lesson extends beyond matchups against the NBA’s standard-bearer.
New Orleans (12-12) is mired in the thick of what’s shaping up to be a six- or seven-team race for the final five spots in the Western Conference playoff picture. And while nearly 70 percent of the regular season remains, it’s becoming clear the Pelicans’ potential and the Pelicans’ problems too often arrive on the same night.
“We have to just learn how to play with a lead and not give it back so quickly,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “To me, my worries is not Golden State, to be honest with you. The Golden States and Houstons and San Antonios (are the best in the West). We’re in an area where we have to try to compete against the Portlands, Denvers and Memphises of the world and try to find a way to get ourselves into the playoffs.
“That’s the most important thing for us. Then Golden State and them are another ladder we’ll have to approach.”
It adds emphasis to Wednesday’s 7 p.m. tipoff in the Smoothie King Center against the Denver Nuggets, who are one of the six teams bunched within 2½ games of the No. 4 spot in the West standings.
While standings-jockeying is all but meaningless in December, there is a sense of urgency to tally wins against the opponents who are fighting for the same real estate come April.
It’s why the Pelicans’ dreadful 146-114 loss in Denver on Nov. 17 — in which they allowed a franchise record for points — was such a source of frustration.
“The game we had there was one of the seven or eight you have in an NBA season where everyone has one of those games,” Gentry said. “But for us, we are playing at home and regardless of the situation, these kind of games you have to try to find a way to win those games at home.”
New Orleans is just 5-6 in the Smoothie King Center and has already dropped contests to midlevel opponents Portland, Orlando and Minnesota (twice). So Wednesday could be an important statement about what home floor actually means.
“I would just like for us to start to do a better job at home and winning home games,” point guard Rajon Rondo said. “We have to protect home court, and obviously when the playoffs come, each team at home feels like they have the advantage, and so we have got to start taking care of home and winning regardless of who comes in.
"If we’re playing Minnesota or San Antonio or Sacramento, we have to do our job of protecting our court.”
It starts with hanging on to big leads and translating potential into results.
Even without Davis in the lineup, New Orleans believes it’s a playoff-caliber team, capable of making noise in a crowded Western Conference. And on Monday they came close to capturing headlines that backed them up.
But the first step is finishing the job — especially against their peers in the middle of the pack.
“The potential is there,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “We have some breakdowns. We have some things in the game that’s our fault and some things that are kind of beyond our control, but we still have to find ways to finish the game.”