The wild swings of momentum did little to provide a clear view of the pending result, but for the New Orleans Pelicans, their arrival at the conclusion offered an all too familiar refrain.
In desperate need of a victory in order to keep pace with a collection of Western Conference teams pursuing a spot in the play-in tournament, the Pelicans coughed up a 16-point, second-half lead in losing to the Houston Rockets 114-112 on Friday, the first of back-to-back games against Houston.
The second matchup is set for Sunday back at Toyota Center.
The defeat left the Pelicans (33-37), who fell to 3-8 since the All-Star break, one-half game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for 10th place in the West entering Saturday.
New Orleans raced to a 14-point, first-quarter lead, surrendered a stunning 22-0 run that yielded an eight-point deficit, and later secured an 89-73 advantage following a Herb Jones dunk with 2:13 left in the third.
Despite strong performances from Brandon Ingram (31 points, six assists) and Jonas Valanciunas (22 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks), the Pelicans could not hold on. And while New Orleans has 12 games left to make the most of an opportunity to extend its season, every loss at this late stage feels especially punitive. Recovering emotionally on the fly is mandatory.
“No need to hang our heads,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “We played a really good game. We came up short but we gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game and that’s important.
“This team is playing with momentum, they (are) playing free. You got to make plays down the stretch and when we do it was great. We missed a few wide-open shots, wish we could get those back, but give them credit. They took care of business.”
The Rockets did so by riding a sudden wave of self-assuredness. Houston improved to 5-3 since snapping an 11-game losing skid and is enjoying a season-best three-game winning streak.
For every moment in which the Pelicans appeared to wrestle control, the Rockets (18-52) had a response. And, reflective of recent play, Houston found contributions from every corner.
While Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. all drilled critical jumpers in the fourth quarter, with Smith knocking down the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left, it was Kenyon Martin Jr. and Alperen Sengun who fueled the comeback in the final period.
Martin and Sengun combined for 16 points and seven rebounds in the fourth before handing the baton to Porter, whose transition 3-pointer with 2:13 left followed his steal and cut the deficit in half at 110-107. Green nailed a 22-footer off an inbound pass from Porter with 35.8 seconds left that pulled Houston to within one before Smith won the game as the third option on the final play.
Mere moments earlier, Smith was lamenting his inability to secure a defensive rebound that enabled the Pelicans to extend their final possession. In an impressive show of resilience, Smith shook off that low moment and delivered when Houston needed him to, another show of growth.
“We’ve had a lot of down moments this year,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “And we’ve been fighting through them and now we’re finally starting to see that once we fight through them we can play and play well.”