There’s no denying that the New Orleans Pelicans continue to trend upwards from the depths of the most abysmal of starts.
After beating the Portland Trail Blazers by a final score of 111-97 Tuesday night, the Pelicans welcomed their first three-game winning streak. They’ve won four of their last five and eight of their last 13.
This team doesn’t remotely resemble the squad that began the 2021-22 season with a 1-12 record.
In offsetting another brilliant Damian Lillard effort (39 points, eight assists and six 3s), the Pelicans put together a fine all-around team performance, spearheaded by Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
In three matchups against the Trail Blazers last season, Ingram posted averages of 21 points, five rebounds and four assists on some very meager shooting splits.
Thanks to a flurry of haymakers right before halftime — 12 points inside the final four minutes of the first half, B.I. was sitting on 18 points, four rebounds and five assists at intermission.
That wise business decision by Jusuf Nurkic was quickly followed up with several Ingram 3s in the span of 30 seconds.
"GOT IT!!!!!"— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 22, 2021
Ingram puts the Pelicans up right before the half pic.twitter.com/JNnrNKJCnM
Ingram’s fiery stretch helped the team overcome 11 first-half turnovers to seize a 51-49 halftime lead. He finished with a team-high 28 points, chipping in eight rebounds and eight assists as well.
Over the last ten games, Ingram has been spectacular, averaging 27.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.0 turnovers and 1.2 steals.
“I can tell…just his I.Q,” Willie Green praised Ingram’s preparation for his recent great play in postgame. ”He’s watching tape. We’re watching a ton of film as a team because we’re not doing as much on the floor as we would like to, and he’s putting it all together. He’s getting more comfortable. He and I are talking daily about ways in which we can continue to progress our offense with everything being centered around him, and guys are playing off of him. He’s doing a great job.”
For as hot as Ingram was to put a wrap on the first half, Josh Hart was nearly as potent out of halftime, quickly propelling New Orleans to a double-digit lead. Not only does Hart’s aggressiveness lead to multiple individual drives and scores at the rim, it energizes the team and creates good opportunities for teammates.
In the first 3:30 of the second half, the Pelicans outscored the Blazers 14-3. Hart accounted for seven of those points, assisted on another bucket — a B.I. dunk down the middle of the lane — and his steal of Nurkic resulted in a Herb Jones corner three.
Time and again, Hart’s shown that he’s much more valuable than a common role player, proving he’s an integral part to the team’s success this season. Another well-rounded boxscore tells no lies: 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, one block and 7-10 shooting from the field, 5-5 from the free throw line.
The hero of the night, though, was undoubtedly Nickeil Alexander-Walker. After an indifferent start (five points, two assists, three turnovers in the first half), onlookers would probably swear they witnessed a man walking around on fire in the second half — and it wasn’t Dame.
Following a missed 3-point attempt at the 2:36 mark of the third quarter, Nickeil went on to make eight of ten shots. He knocked down a third quarter buzzer-beater. He splashed home five of six from beyond the arc.
That stretch almost felt magical for those who have kept the faith that the best is yet to come for the 23-year-old out of Virginia Tech.
Nickeil scored 22 of his 27 points over the final 13:07 of regulation. He darn near outscored the Trail Blazers by himself, who tallied 23 points during that incredible one-man, wrecking-ball run.
"I HOPE YOUR MAMA PROUD! AND EVERYBODY IN CANADA PROUD OF YA!" - DEVONTE pic.twitter.com/CZQoAlXB88— Bally Sports New Orleans (@BallySportsNO) December 22, 2021
Devonte’s right — Nickeil did play his ass off.
Thanks to the Big 3 of Ingram-Hart-NAW, Jonas Valanciunas’ struggles of scoring against Nurkic didn’t prove instrumental. However, the New Orleans starting center did finish with his 24th double-double (10 points and 16 rebounds).
Willy Hernangomez also alleviated the pressure some from Valanciunas’ third-lowest point total of the season by finishing with 13 points on a very efficient 5-6 shooting performance.
Anyway you slice it, the Pelicans are a vastly improved team from the product witnessed on the court during the first month of the season. The biggest reason why the 1-12 start didn’t destroy an entire campaign is because of the great synergy that resides inside the locker room.
“The vibe, it’s a good positive vibe,” Josh Hart said in postgame. “We always have music blasting, usually Rod Wave, everybody loves Rod Wave, so we blast Rod Wave a lot. Guys want to get in the gym, and I think that’s the biggest thing. You’ve had times in previous years where it’s like, ‘I just want to get away from basketball.’ We have an off day and I don’t want to go in there, I don’t want to see anybody, I don’t want to do that. This year, it’s guys wanting to get in, guys want to go get extra shots, get extra work, get into the weight room. So, I think that’s a good thing, just a positivity and the vibe that’s so much different, you know, positive.”
I’ll admit, I’m a believer. I witnessed an unusually high amount of energy and camaraderie during training camp, it never wavered during some very low points and now with the confidence and familiarity growing in each player’s role and with one another, one can’t completely dismiss Play-In Tournament aspirations — there aren’t 10 teams in the Western Conference running away with this season.
Up next, the Pelicans have one more contest before Christmas Day — a date against the Magic in Orlando on December 23.
A four-game winning streak before New Orleanians unwrap all the gifts sitting underneath Christmas trees? Yes, please.