HOUSTON — It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t have enough to keep up with the Houston Rockets on Monday night.
The Pelicans (14-14) were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and four of their rotational pieces, including star forward Anthony Davis, were out because of injury.
But New Orleans went toe-to-toe with arguably the hottest team in the NBA for much of the night before running out of gas in a 130-123 defeat at the Toyota Center.
Despite the loss, New Orleans had one of its most explosive outings of the year and showed the grit that’s needed from a team trying to establish itself as a playoff contender in the rugged Western Conference.
“That’s what I was most proud of,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “We could’ve just settled, but I thought our guys came out really thinking we could win the game.”
Rockets guards James Harden and Chris Paul combined to score 46 points and Houston has won all 11 games Paul has played this season, including eight double-digit victories.
But the Pelicans came out of the gates with the confidence that they can run with Houston’s fast-paced offense, and the two squads were putting up some historic numbers through the first two quarters.
New Orleans set new season-highs for points in the first quarter (41) ad the first half (76) while also setting a franchise record with 14 3-pointers. But the Rockets were just as effective on offense and managed to go into the half holding a two-point lead.
New Orleans has made at least 57 percent of its field-goal attempts in back-to-back games and its posting the league’s third-highest offensive rating during December — trailing only Houston and Golden State.
“We’ve just been clicking,” said Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday. “We obviously knew that guys were down tonight and the other guys had to step up — we had to step up to the challenge. We knew that they are (No. 1) in the West and how good they are. With what they like to do, I think we did a pretty good job of trying to execute the game plan.”
New Orleans played its seventh game in the last 11 days on Monday night, and with so many players out due to injury, four of the team’s five starters were forced to play 39 or more minutes.
The pace of the game eventually wore the Pelicans down as it went deeper into the fourth quarter and they were outscored 34-20 in the final period.
Along with Davis, Dante Cunningham (right knee), Jameer Nelson (left ankle) and Tony Allen (left knee) all sat out of Monday’s loss. Ian Clark was the only Pelicans reserve that played more than 15 minutes.
“I know that we’re all tired, and that’s not really an excuse,” Holiday said. “I think just to keep our composure and fight that really brings us as a team closer together.”
Holiday came up big for the Pelicans once again on Monday night with a season-high 37 points and he’s suddenly turned into one of the top scoring guards around the league during recent weeks.
In the 13 games Rajon Rondo has started this year, Holiday is averaging 22.4 points and he’s scored at least 30 in three of the last five games.
Holiday went 16-for-21 from the field against Houston and he’s currently playing with as much confidence as he ever has during his time in New Orleans.
“He’s aggressive,” Rondo said of Holiday. “He’s not deferring, he’s getting out in the open court. I think what’s helping Jrue is that, when we get stops, it allows him to play in the open floor and he’s not going against set defenses. When he’s able to play in isolation, he’s one of the top guys in this league.”
The Pelicans have been encouraged by the growth they’ve shown since Rondo’s return to the lineup, but the veteran made a point of saying after Monday’s loss that the team shouldn’t be content with just playing better.
The Pelicans are currently the No. 6 seed in the West despite going 3-6 over their last nine games and Rondo said that winning has to remain the team’s top priority.
“We’re pros, we want to go out there and compete,” Rondo said. “But f*** competing, I thought we should have won.”