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Valanciunas, Ingram cage Timberwolves in 107-98 Pelicans victory

The pair combined for 49 points and 32 rebounds in the team’s first win of the season!

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves
Ingram attempts to summon ball with Force
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The temperature in Minneapolis sat in the mid-forties during the game, but even the Minnesotans out and about on this Monday night were warmer than the ice-cold Timberwolves. Karl Anthony-Towns and company shot a putrid 25.6% (11-46) from the field in the first half, a percentage that would climb to just 34.4% (31-90) as the Pelicans snuck out of the Twin City with their first victory of the season, a 107-98 dazzler.

Offensive struggles were the name of the bad first three games for New Orleans this season, and those problems did not disappear in the first half. Turnovers once again sapped momentum at crucial points, and shots just would not fall. Brandon Ingram knocked down a technical free throw with 5:25 left in the first frame that evened up the score at 9-9.

The stalemate seal was finally broken by a Trey Murphy III triple with just over a minute left in the quarter, which was followed soon after a make from Jaxson Hayes and a pair of free throws to push the lead to 25-19.

Minnesota’s 15 made free throws on 19 first-half attempts (only slightly higher than the Pelicans’ 11 makes on 14 shots) and poor three-point shooting from New Orleans (27.8%, 5-18) kept the game within reach, but that little run at the end of the first ultimately proved to be the last time the Timberwolves sniffed the lead.

Given Anthony Edwards’ successful mission to heat the building up after that frigid first half, that accomplishment is something the Pelicans should be very proud of.

An electrifying sequence of at-the-rim acrobatics, thunderous dunks, and a sprinkling of jumpers resulted in a 21-point quarter for the 2020 number one pick. Even after makes, it felt like the Pelicans were defending in transition. I can’t blame them for not stopping the ball, though; the speed and size of Edwards is not a combination that would feel good in anyone’s chest (which is a massive credit to Naji Marshall, who eventually did, in fact, draw a charge.)

This stretch of individual brilliance got the home crowd as loud as they’d been across these, but the Pelicans never gave way. A hot start to the third from Ingram, who sunk two triples en route to eight points in the first 3:15, provided a much-needed cushion. The slam of the night also came from Ingram at the height of the Minnesota fan frenzy and on the head of the now outdone Edwards:

Ingram slammed that comeback window shut just as effectively as he closed the door on Minnesota’s last fourth quarter gasp. He went traded baskets with Towns for four consecutive possessions, rattling off another eight-point burst over two minutes to keep the lead in double-digits with 1:30 to go. That final flurry of makes rounded out his team-high 27 point night and added a crucial tally to games closed as the primary offensive option.

Valanciunas’ night was more of a slow burn than the burst-heavy Ingram’s, but from the opening minutes he was scorching the Timberwolves on both ends. Towns finished with a game-high 32 points, but Valanciunas’ defense in the first quarter forced the All-Star big to the bench with two personal fouls and one technical foul. Valanciunas racked up 23 rebounds with ease, and was just one offensive rebound away from nabbing 10 boards on both ends of the court. By keeping plays alive and initiating many others, Valanciunas guided the Pelicans’ offense to their best, if not an entirely seamless, offensive performance yet.

So few minutes have been played this season that most conclusions about a lineup’s efficacy would be premature. But, given how discombobulated the reserve-heavy groups were in the first three games, it was not a surprise to see Willie Green change up the rotation.

Valanciunas was the last starter to leave the floor after sticking around for 10 minutes with fellow starter Herbert Jones. They gave way to the rest pair of Ingram, Devonte’ Graham and, at the start of the second quarter, Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Staggering Valanciunas and the primary ball handlers worked wonders in this game, and it is not hard to see why. He provides an easy starting point for an offensive possession, where a player can either run some sort of P&R action with him or just throw it down into the post. His combination of strength and skill allows him to navigate even the most crowded interiors with enough precision to keep the ball moving or get a shot up.

Green tried a different iteration of this in the second half, with Ingram staying in with Valanciunas for most of the third quarter. And while Minnesota fought tooth and nail during the stretch with that pair plus Kira Lewis Jr., Garrett Temple and Trey Murphy III on the floor, there was enough juice in the offense to maintain the lead.

It wouldn’t be fair to credit the rotations alone for the boost in bench production, but the reserves did come through tonight in a way that they hadn’t in games prior. Temple, Marshall, and Murphy each made key plays at potential turning points throughout the night without trying to do too much. That is a crucial balance to strike just two nights after not trying to do nearly enough, but they pulled it off.

With their first win now in the books, the Pelicans will make their way home for a Wednesday night matchup with the Hawks. Will Valanciunas and Clint Capela leave rebounds for anybody else? Only time will tell.

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