In most NBA seasons, sitting at the No. 4 spot in the standings with 20 games remaining would prompt fans to start clearing their calendar and putting down deposits on playoff tickets.
And, while excitement is buzzing around the red-hot New Orleans Pelicans and their eight-game winning streak, there’s a recognition of the fragility each spot holds in an obscenely crowded field.
The turbulence is best illustrated by the Pelicans’ ever-changing position. Although they’ve played just one game in the past five days and moved in the standings at the end of each.
They’ve vacillated between seventh, sixth, fifth and fourth depending on the hour. And after Sunday’s 126-109 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, they surpassed the Minnesota Timberwolves, temporarily ascending to the No. 4 spot.
“I just think the guys are playing with a lot of confidence,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “The guys are playing for each other and they’re willing to pass up a good shot to get someone else a better shot. We are grinding and scrapping and doing the things you have to in order to win, especially when you’re in the West.”
However, even as the battle for home-court advantage in the first round has become the goal-du-jour, the Pelicans’ recognize a handful of poor performances can not only knock them into an undesirable playoff seeding, but possibly push them to the outside altogether.
It places an added emphasis on Tuesday night’s 9:30 p.m. road tipoff against the ninth-placed Los Angeles Clippers, who have won 11 of their past 15 games and are knocking on the playoff door. A win over the Pelicans would not only pull them within a game of New Orleans, but potentially jump past two other Western Conference foes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Everybody is bunched up between 3 and 10 and a win here or there or a loss here or there and suddenly you not just go from the playoffs to not being in the playoffs, but you go from playing at home in a first round series to sitting at home because you didn’t make it at all.
“It just adds another layer to everything and shows that we can’t afford to take a night off or even a quarter off. We have to treat each game with importance.”
While the Pelicans haven’t played flawlessly, they’re undoubtedly in the midst of their best stretch since 2015, tallying a 16-6 record since Jan. 12 and pushing their way up the standings. Yet, it still hasn’t gotten them any comfortable clearance within the playoff race.
Instead, a simple three game losing streak could bump them all the way back to 10th place. It’s why Anthony Davis — who was named Western Conference Player of the Week on the heels of winning February’s Western Conference Player of the Month — is admittedly looking at the league’s scoreboard every night.
“Yeah we are checking it,” Davis said. “I mean we know the position we are in and we know there are eight teams in there battling for six spots so it’s interesting to see who is winning and who is losing and how everything is changing every night. I mean, we were in fifth after one game, then didn’t play again and ended up in seventh.
“It’s all kind of crazy.”
The Pelicans play 14 of their final 20 games against teams with winning records, including seven against peers in the Western Conference logjam. The first comes on Wednesday night in the Staples Center.
A win creates some space. A loss sets off some panic.
It’s what the next 37 days are all about.
“We just keep fighting,” Jrue Holiday said. “We know what’s in front of us and we are just trying to keep winning and going up in the standings and make our position even better.
“We can’t wait to get to L.A.”