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New Orleans Pelicans have quietly become one of NBA’s most resilient squads

The Pelicans may not be playoff tested yet, but they’re already showing off a lot of postseason mettle.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans prefer a challenge.

When pondering the most successful crunch time teams in the league this season, there lies a surprise team inside the top five that few would probably guess they belong. That’s right, I’m referring to the Pelicans, one of the favorite laughing stocks by various pundits over the last few years — including for too much of this one!

The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors sitting at the top of the list are a given. They’re far and away regarded as the two best teams in the NBA so of course they should wrap up hotly contested battles with victories more often than anyone else. After them, naturally, come the Cleveland Cavaliers and the most dominant player in the game today, LeBron James.

Fourth in the rankings: the Pelicans, who lead the league with 29 wins in games that featured a point differential of five points or less at some point during the final five minutes of regulation.

Everyone can probably guess the obvious factor responsible for propelling New Orleans to the finish line, but did you know the resident superstar has been far from alone in his quest? Anthony Davis has scored the fifth most points in the clutch but Jrue Holiday is right behind him at eighth. Have a look at how the duo compares among the league leaders across the statistical spectrum.

LeBron James 138 176 47 29 17 4 5 55.5% 31.7%
DeMar DeRozan 144 165 23 16 9 5 0 45.5% 33.3%
Russell Westbrook 160 144 55 29 14 4 2 40.5% 20.8%
Kyrie Irving 119 142 13 19 9 4 2 47.5% 26.5%
Anthony Davis 172 129 55 7 9 8 12 52.3% 0.0%
Jimmy Butler 133 123 27 10 11 6 1 38.5% 27.3%
Victor Oladipo 119 122 23 11 17 8 3 44.4% 30.0%
Jrue Holiday 209 119 27 33 14 13 3 50.0% 44.4%
Bradley Beal 160 115 26 15 15 7 2 32.1% 20.0%
Damian Lillard 131 111 20 16 10 5 1 47.2% 37.0%

Go ahead and stare in awe because that’s flat out impressive.

LeBron James may have a higher FG% but notice Holiday has been more proficient from three-point range and from a playmaking standpoint. Also, don’t miss the defensive contributions from Davis and Holiday and how their two-way abilities compare vastly superior to their peers. But my favorite part is that the Pelicans are the only team to boast two clutch time leaders. For those who continue to hold onto the nonsensical belief that AD has been going it alone, Holiday has been Davis’ equal when matchups have been on the line.

Where is Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Karl-Anthony Towns, or a slew of others that are more commonly mentioned among the game’s best? Heh, scan down the list for these prominent names, and when you do find them, chuckle at George’s 37.0 FG%, shudder at Lowry’s seven assists (vs 11 turnovers) in 123 minutes, and mourn KAT’s 50 points in 145 minutes.

Among all nine active Pelicans who have attempted a field goal during clutch minutes, every single one of them has a field goal percentage of 40.0% or higher. Thanks to positive types of production across the lineup, New Orleans boasts a top 10 offense (8th) and a top 10 defense (6th) during winning time, but did you know that the team has made it a habit of needing to fight game in, game out? Yep, they’ve become used to staging comebacks when their backs have been against the wall at a lot of earlier moments within games.

Offensive rating Defensive rating Net Rating eFG% Opponent eFG% REB%
First Quarters 107.8 (11) 107.7 (19) +0.2 (14) 54.2% (7) 52.5% (13) 48.7% (25)
Second Quarters 113.2 (3) 105.6 (15) +7.6 (4) 58.9% (1) 52.2% (15) 50.0% (18)
Third Quarters 101.5 (25) 106.9 (18) -5.4 (24) 51.1% (20) 52.2% (14) 48.5% (24)
Fourth Quarters 108.0 (12) 105.8 (10) +2.2 (10) 52.5% (6) 49.4% (4) 49.8% (16)
Clutch Moments 113.1 (8) 100.2 (6) +12.9 (5) 53.8% (5) 45.4% (9) 51.0% (12)

This rollercoaster trend has been even more pronounced since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles, forging quite a unbreakable identity over the last 25 games of the schedule.

Offensive rating Defensive rating Net Rating eFG% Opponent eFG% REB%
First Quarters 104.5 (20) 110.9 (19) -6.4 (22) 51.5% (18) 53.0% (12) 47.8% (22)
Second Quarters 113.3 (5) 104.1 (7) +9.3 (6) 57.2% (1) 50.4% (9) 49.1% (20)
Third Quarters 98.4 (29) 104.7 (10) -6.3 (24) 48.5% (28) 49.3% (6) 47.5% (27)
Fourth Quarters 109.0 (12) 101.3 (4) +7.6 (5) 53.6% (6) 47.4% (2) 49.8% (17)
Clutch Moments 111.9 (12) 87.3 (3) +24.6 (6) 52.3% (7) 37.3% (2) 52.6% (12)

For whatever the reason, these Pelicans have taken to playing the role of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky: get punched at the outset to get a feel for the opponent, return some fire to establish a presence, take a hellacious beating so as to stoke the fire, and then proceed to annihilate Clubber Lang, Drago or whomever stands on the court and calls next.

When you look up the word resilient in a dictionary, one definition reads as “able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.”

The Pelicans have a 9-5 record in games played with zero days of rest. In other words, they’ve been really sharp on the second night of back-to-backs. Impressive, but it kind of pales in comparison to their latest achievement — one that hasn’t been witnessed in 39 years!

Over the last six days, New Orleans was required to play five times. They won four of those battles, but it could have just as easily been five had several additional whistles been called in the Pelicans favor or the ball bounced friendlier a few more time against Houston. Regardless, New Orleans is now ready to put the finishing touches on a special season after surviving their most strenuous stretch on the schedule with flying colors.

Following a mediocre start to the 2017-18 campaign, the Pelicans began to win games once the personalities and talents on the floor started to mesh after the new year. Then instead of quitting on the season after Boogie — a player with a lot of heart and soul — was lost in the blink of an eye, the entire team rose to the occasion while the coaching staff made the necessary adjustments.

To make up for their faults, New Orleans decided to push the pace to the fastest level in the league, make a more concerted effort to score from inside the paint and defend, defend, defend. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday evolved to form one of the most lethal late-game combinations in the league. But above all else, the team developed a grit. Unlike previous editions under Head Coach Alvin Gentry, this version has forgotten how to quit, and following what may very well wind up the defining moment, the Pelicans are poised to enter the postseason exhibiting all the characteristics that are mandatory for success in the playoffs.

Get excited, New Orleans, cause the Pelicans have proven capable, confident and tough. They truly do appear to be on the verge of making some noise into late April.

Possibly even beyond.