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Valanciunas’ career night paces Pelicans to 123-104 victory over Clippers

Teammates started referencing him as Dirk Nowitzki!

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In hindsight, Los Angeles probably never had a chance despite some moments of questionable officiating. Antonio Daniels giving in to superstitious beliefs and donning a turtleneck was the first sign. Jonas Valanciunas scoring the first eight points for New Orleans was definitely the second.

On a night their starting center set several career highs, the Pelicans (6-17) jumped all over the Clippers (11-10) early, building a 33-14 first-quarter lead, and proceeded to cruise to a rather smooth 123-104 victory. New Orleans nearly led wire to wire because they never stopped throwing punches.

The Pelicans outscored the Clippers 66-32 in the paint. They tallied 16 more fast break points (22-6). They came up with nine more steals (11-2). They had 30 assists against just eight turnovers.

But the player responsible for kickstarting the fireworks display was Dirk Valanciunas, who was even being prodded to keep shooting bombs on social media by Ja Morant, a former teammate of his on the Memphis Grizzlies.

“The guys were calling him Dirk Valanciunas,” Willie Green said in postgame. “But we want him shooting the ball when he’s open and kind of mixing it in. He still wants to go to the post, which I love about him — he’s a physical guy, but just explaining to him how it’s going to open our offense up, with his ability to shoot the ball the way that he can, it was amazing to see tonight.”

Jonas’ line really does speak for itself: 39 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, two steals and seven 3-pointers. Only two players have combined to score 35 points, grab 10 rebounds and knock down seven 3-pointers in a game this season: Stephen Curry and Valanciunas.

Talk about elite company. Valanciunas was such an unstoppable monster that it felt like his outside shooting set the entire tone for the Pelicans in the first half.

Valanciunas wasn’t alone in providing that efficient scoring punch though. Alongside his opening 13 points, Brandon Ingram nearly matched him with 11 first-quarter points.

Ingram didn’t over dribble. He didn’t settle. Nearly all of his field goal attempts came from inside the lane and this bucket showed off his aggressive mentality well.

Ingram finished with 27 points on 12-18 shooting, adding seven rebounds and four assists. Despite not setting a season high, it was probably Ingram’s most dominant performance of the season.

If Valanciunas impersonated Dirk Nowitzki tonight, Josh Hart could have been confused with Draymond Green, thanks to a line of four points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and two steals. He made only 1 of 9 field goals, but the playmaking produced some stellar results.

Herb Jones also added greatly to the night’s festivities: 16 points, four rebounds, two steals and one block. Not only does the rookie continue to make big plays defensively, he shows the same smarts elsewhere, knowing when to drive, make a cut or put himself in position for contested loose balls.

That bucket could be considered a game-changer because it looked like the Clippers might make one more run. Before it, the Pelicans had only scored two points in nearly five minutes of action in the fourth quarter.

Paul George, who finished with 27 points, was on a heater and in the midst of scoring 10 straight for L.A. And after the And-1, Jones got himself to the free throw line on the Pelicans next possession, calmly sinking both attempts.

There’s really not enough superlatives that can be thrown Jones’ way. The combination of his high motor, god-given ability and understanding of the game is second to none for a rookie. He’s always seemingly in the right place, never unfazed. When he’s out on the court, his presence almost always makes a positive difference for the team.

There were multiple other plays that assisted the Pelicans in winning their third contest in the last four games. Devonte’ Graham hit several big 3-pointers. So, too, did Garrett Temple. Willy Hernangomez had another impactful showing as the team’s backup center — nine points and six rebounds in 16 minutes — and Nickeil Alexander-Walker made several heady decisions.

“I think we’ve been resilient,” Ingram said in postgame. “That’s a word I know Willie uses a lot. We’ve just responded. We had a good night at Utah the first night. The second night wasn’t so good and we came back and responded. We knew the Clippers were on a back-to-back, and we also knew that we beat the Clippers at home, and they were going to come out and bring the intensity and try to be really really good tonight. It was important for us to match it, and I think we did tonight. The first half carried over to the second half.”

After winning only once in their first 13 games, the Pelicans have put together five victories in their last 10 contests. And all of those wins came against playoff-caliber opponents. There’s no doubt that New Orleans is trending upwards — and Zion Williamson’s return sits around the corner.

There’s so many reasons not to count out this Pelicans team right now. So don’t.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.