They led wire-to-wire.
They also notched their first home victory of the season in the process.
It turns out having a star available can make a world of difference.
“It’s what guys like Brandon...they do that for your team,” Willie Green said in postgame. “They elevate everyone in the sense that guys don’t have to do more than what they’re used to doing. So everybody kind of was in their normal positions, and they just played together. They played hard. They played together. Great game plan discipline, and you know, we won. So it feels good to say that.”
“It’s night and day because you have their best defender as well as a loaded defense focusing on him,” Nickeil Alexander-Walker detailed the importance of having Ingram’s star presence back on the floor. “So now we’re playing off close outs, now we’re playing off open shots, swings, stuff that we do in warmups. It kind of makes the whole game easier for us because of the focus he brings.”
The good vibes were evident right from the jump as Ingram’s teammates didn’t hold back in showing their excitement about his return during player introductions. As the PA announcer read BI’s name and he ran onto the court in between his teammates, they all started celebrating around him, eventually mobbing him in a fun-loving circle.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Devonte’ Graham got the ball rolling, scoring the first 15 points for the Pelicans. Then Ingram added the next six. Jonas Valanciunas soon followed with a couple of 3-pointers. So did Trey Murphy III. There were contributions up and down the roster, on both ends of the floor.
The Pelicans were looking up at a 62-44 lead at halftime, dominating the action from all over the court. From a shooting perspective, they lit the nets on fire (55 FG%, 60 3PT%, 75 FT%). They held advantages in many decisive categories, including rebounds and assists. Although the Pelicans had accumulated a few more turnovers (7-5), they even had an 8-2 points-off-turnovers edge over the Grizzlies.
As the box score painted the clearest of pictures, so too did the eye test — the Pelicans did a fantastic job of executing Willie Green’s .5 offense, defending with purpose and vigor, and to be fair, just not beating themselves.
The second half, of course, provided a lot more drama.
With 4:16 left in the third quarter, the Pelicans had a comfortable lead of 81-62 following a Herbert Jones lay-in. Unfortunately, they would go on to add only two more points to their total in the frame.
The Grizzlies narrowing the Pelicans’ lead to 83-72 at the start of the final quarter had many probably thinking: here we go again. Despite having won only a single game in their first 13 on the schedule, New Orleans enjoyed many a lead in second halves previously — to only give them away before the final buzzer.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker put those fears to rest almost immediately. He scored the first bucket of the fourth on a nice floater. He followed that up with a right-handed scoop shot off glass.
NAW finished with a game-high 21 points, two steals and a couple of threes. Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte’ Graham — each better suited in supporting roles — scored 15 points apiece on good efficiency. But the player’s stat which stuck out the most: Josh Hart had a career-high 11 assists.
“Willie has the ultimate trust in me to go out there and play my game and play with confidence,” Hart said in postgame. “The biggest thing that we talked about wasn’t just standing in the corner and hoping and praying for the ball to do something. He is putting me in positions where we’re running actions on the weak side, and I have the ball and I’m making the decisions - hitting Jonas (Valančiūnas) on top or other guys on the curl. It also gives you rhythm when you’re out there making plays and getting guys involved, and you’re involved in the offense. That’s when you’re at your best. But when you’re not touching the ball for three or four minutes at a time, it’s tough to be in the rhythm and the flow of the game. That’s something Willie does a great job of with everybody, especially a big difference from last year to this year.”
In his return, Ingram posted a line of 19 points, four assists and three rebounds, appearing in a very manageable 29 minutes. After the game, he said his right hip was feeling no ill-effects, boding well for the Pelicans upcoming two-game road trip.
While the whole bench contributed positively — Jaxson Hayes had a few blocks within seconds of one another, Garrett Temple’s quick hands led to a couple of bad Memphis possessions, and Tomas Satoransky had his best playmaking day in a Pelicans uniform — the two rookies produced the greatest highlights.
Murphy knocked down two 3-pointers that kept the momentum going for the Pelicans in the first half, but don’t overlook his two free throws. Those makes were pivotal. During the last 4+ minutes of the third quarter when the Pelicans only added two points? Those were the pair of Trey freebies.
Herbert Jones may have been the biggest revelation of the night. In 29 minutes off the bench, he scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, made 3 of 4 from 3-point range and nailed all four of his free throw attempts.
For a guy who entered the league needing to put in vast amounts of time on his shot, it’s incredible to witness the proficiency and confidence just a handful of games into the start of his professional career.
It’s still anyone’s guess as to what heights he’ll achieve, but we’ve witnessed clearly he’s headed down a path of being more than just some energy guy, only making an impact on the defensive side of the ball. He’s got the athleticism. The IQ. The burning desire to work religiously on his game. And if he develops consistency on that jumper of his, look out. His name could one day be linked to lists like, ‘Biggest Steals in the Second Round,’ and stuff.
Perhaps the most crestfallen news on the night, Jonas Valanciunas streak of 11 straight double-doubles (15 points, nine rebounds) came to an end — he fell just one rebound shy! Interestingly, Steven Adams posted identical totals (15 points, nine rebounds too!) against his former team.
Dillion Brooks led the Grizzlies with 23 points and Ja Morant had 22 points and 10 assists. Morant was special at times, using his blazing speed to get wherever he wanted often, but it was more impressive to see him knock down open outside jumpers. He nailed three 3s of that variety tonight. It’s not hard to imagine he’ll be that next great guard to crack the top 10 in the league.
Up next, the Pelicans fly to Washington D.C. tomorrow to face the Wizards on Sunday. Don’t scoff, these Wizards are good, leading the Eastern Conference with a 9-3 record.