Rabalais: Revamped franchise has smashing, if losing, debut

Rebooting the franchise is often a thumbs down when it comes to movies.

On opening night, though, the New Orleans Pelicans had a smashing debut.

A revamped roster with six new players, playing inside a refurbished New Orleans Arena and under a new name, the Pelicans looked the part of a trendy young team on the rise Wednesday despite being unable to hang on in a 95-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their season opener.

Is it Version 2.0 for Crescent City NBA roundball, or 3.0? Depends whether you count the New Orleans Jazz, or how much the Pelicans reincarnation from their years as the Hornets is worth.

With Saints/Pelicans owner Tom Benson looking on from his midcourt seats — next to his literal right-hand man, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis — and Saints players like Darren Sproles, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro sprinkled through the courtside crowd, the game bore a lot of the trappings of a gala premier.

Whether those inflatable noodle looking things that fans were waving behind the goals become a New Orleans Arena staple remains to be seen — but I hope not.

“We had a great crowd, great energy,” Pelicans center Jason Smith said as he iced his knees in the locker room afterward. “They can help us win some games.”

The scene inside the building formerly known as The Hive (What will it be now? The Nest? The Cage? The Roost? Send in your suggestions and the winner gets to re-paper Pierre the Pelicans’ dressing room) was both more playful and less emotional than the Saints triumphant return to the Superdome in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That game followed a long, dark period in which New Orleans’ future was in as much doubt as the future home of its most beloved franchise.

Nothing so drastic on the line here with the Pelicans, who as the Hornets were always more diversion than devotion for South Louisiana sports fans. Benson’s acquisition of the team secures a long-term future for the club after the uncertainty of the George Shinn/NBA ownership years. Disquiet has been replaced by a tangible desire to win and win now with the means to do it, a determination not seen within this franchise since the Chris Paul era.

So it was into an arena tanked up with a palpable sense of urgency — if not quite packed to the rafters with fans, despite being officially a sellout — that the Pelicans stepped Wednesday night.

Of course, the first step in an 82-game marathon of a season isn’t an endorsement of success or an indictment of trouble to come, but it was a good test for New Orleans against an Indiana team that extended the Miami Heat to seven games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals.

There will be initial disappointment for the Pelicans, unable as they were to hold a 50-36 halftime lead after the first 24 minutes in which the Pacers (who beat Orlando at home Tuesday night) looked jetlagged.

The Hornets, er, Pelicans (Oh, come on, admit it, you’re still doing it, too) were a bit shorthanded, announcing before the game that key reserve forward Ryan Anderson will be sidelined one to three weeks with a chip fracture of the second toe of his right foot, an obscure but painful-sounding injury. It’s much too early for excuses, though, and perhaps the Pelicans should chalk up the loss to a team still figuring out how to play with each other against a talented opponent that is expected to again chase the Heat hard through the East this season.

“I just didn’t think we had an understanding of the moment in the fourth quarter,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Once we understand how to play in those playoff type atmospheres (we will improve).

“We are going to be pretty good once we learn how to play in those conditions.”

First take: Anthony Davis may be the man with his name above the title in this production, but in Game 1, there was a real sense that the Pelicans’ fortunes will rise or fall this season on the play of backcourt mates Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon.

Holiday, acquired in the offseason in a post-draft trade with Philadelphia, had 24 points from the point, driving and jumping for a pair of critical baskets down the stretch as the Pelicans tried to hold onto the lead. The oft-injured Gordon poured in 25 points, the kind of performance New Orleans must have if it will make a playoff run.

“We showed how good we can be,” Gordon said. “Once we take away some of those lapses, we will get better.”

Gordon’s name has long been mentioned amid trade rumors with these very Pacers and forward Danny Granger, the Metairie native and Grace King grad.

Granger didn’t play Wednesday because of a strained left calf. Personally, I don’t see the Pelicans making the move to swap him for Gordon, who if healthy can be the point producer Granger has typically been.

For now, the Pelicans should play the hand they have. It should be good enough to help them win more games than they lose this season.