The Pelicans were a young and inconsistent team missing their best player. The Clippers owned a six-game winning streak and a fully intact roster.
It was a mismatch, all right. Just not the one most expected.
The Clippers appeared uninterested until a frantic fourth-quarter comeback fell short, leaving them with a 108-103 loss at the Smoothie King Center that ended their winning streak in disheartening fashion.
"We played awful," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. "If we had won the game, it would have been an injustice."
The Clippers were outrebounded, out-toughed and outhustled by a team missing its only All-Stars in Davis (strained groin) and point guard Jrue Holiday (stress reaction in his lower right leg). Clippers forward Blake Griffin said players talked about how other Pelicans would step up in Davis' absence, but something seemed to get lost in translation.
"They just pushed us around," said Griffin, who scored 19 points. "They played how they wanted to play and we just kind of came out and we didn't play with any energy, didn't play with any passion, a bad pace. We were just bad all around."
As poorly as they played, the Clippers nearly notched a fourth consecutive comeback victory, using a 12-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to pull within 95-94 with 5:07 left. But Griffin and Chris Paul missed shots that would have given the Clippers the lead and Pelicans shooting guard Eric Gordon made a couple of jumpers to end the drama.
Gordon finished with a season-high 28 points against his former team and big men Ryan Anderson (24 points) and Alexis Ajinca (17 points, nine rebounds) were big problems for their Clippers counterparts.
Paul scored 14 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, but the Clippers had too much ground to make up after being outscored, 35-22, in the third. New Orleans scored the first eight points of the quarter and made five of its 13 three-pointers in those 12 minutes, many of them on wide-open shots.
The Pelicans also seemed to get to every loose ball throughout the game.
"It had to be 1,000 to zero," Rivers said of the discrepancy in effort. "I mean, they got every loose ball. That just means they were more focused, they were more into the game, they were more activated, and our guys just thought if we showed up tonight that the game would take care of itself and it didn't so we lose the game."
The defeat was an unexpected detour on an eight-game trip that will only get tougher for the Clippers (32-15). Five of the final six games on the trip will be against teams that probably will make the playoffs, starting Saturday against defending NBA champion San Antonio.
"This is a hard trip," Rivers said. "So that's why this one with our guys will sting more because you can't gift games. Not on this trip."
Said Griffin: "We need a big bounce-back [Saturday]. If we come out and play like that against San Antonio we're going to get run out of the gym, so we better find it."
Rivers somehow retained his sense of humor after the game, engaging Davis as he walked down a hallway next to reporters interviewing Rivers.
"Hey, let's start a chant, 'Trade A.D.!' " Rivers said, smiling.
Asked if the chant should end with "to us," Rivers said, "I couldn't say that. That would be tampering. See how smart I was there."
Also smart enough to know when his team has only itself to blame.