When they were on the ropes, staring at the prospect of another loss on national television, the New Orleans Pelicans finally did it.
They didn’t bow down.
Instead, the Pelicans completed the greatest comeback in franchise history in beating the Boston Celtics, in overtime, 120-115.
“There were a lot of things we didn’t do, but we kept fighting,” Stan Van Gundy said in postgame. “We were down 24, we kept fighting and nobody dropped their heads tonight. We were resilient and we came away with a win.”
Zion Williamson finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. His fourth and final dime of the game went to Brandon Ingram, who knocked down a three-pointer to put New Orleans up 115-112 with 34.4 seconds remaining.
Ingram scored a game-high 33 points, his seventh game with 30 or more this season, and 18th since the start of the 2019-20 season. It was a huge game for Ingram, who has been struggling to fill the role of closer this season.
Williamson had no doubt that the ball was in the right man’s hands when he made his pass.
Zion Williamson calls Brandon Ingram "built for those moments" when he hit him with a pass that led to THE important three-pointer, putting the Pelicans ahead 115-112 with 34.4 seconds left in OT.— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) February 22, 2021
Williy Hernangomez added 13 rebounds in his second start in place of Steven Adams.
The Pelicans tandem outscored Boston’s Jayson Tatum (32) and Jaylen Brown (25) by four points for the game, but they were exceptionally dominant in the second half. Williamson and Ingram combined for 44 of New Orleans’ 73 points over the game’s final 29 minutes.
Zion Williamson's 2nd half versus the Celtics was super impressive:— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) February 21, 2021
Their counterparts were held to 27 during that same time.
After an uninspired first half that left the home team trailing by 16, there was no indication that such an effort was possible. New Orleans had been sloppy offensively, and indifferent on defense. Boston scored 19 points off of Pelicans turnovers, and outscored them 26-14 in points in the paint.
It was downright embarrassing to watch as the Celtics opened the third quarter by outscoring the Pels 16-8.
Trailing 79-55 with 6:29 remaining in the third quarter, and spearheaded by the relentless effort on both ends by Josh Hart, the Pelicans started to make their way back.
The box score credits Hart with 17 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and a steal, but there isn’t a stat for what he brought to the floor.
“I want to be a junkyard dog,” Hart said in postgame. “That’s just my game, that’s how I want to do it. Today was obviously a tough task with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two All-Stars. It was tough. Those guys are going to make tough buckets and stuff like that. But, for me, it’s just rebounding, getting out on the break, playing good defense, doing all the little things. I want to win.”
At one point, Hart may have been the only person on the floor playing like he truly believed the Pelicans could win this game. His fire lit one under the rest of his teammates.
New Orleans became the aggressor. Only one of the Pelicans’ baskets came from outside the paint as they won the third quarter 27-24 to cut the lead to 13 heading into the fourth.
Williamson began dominating the inside, as Ingram attacked the basket repeatedly off the dribble. When the Pelicans weren’t scoring it from the floor, they were getting to the charity stripe. New Orleans attempted 29 free throws in the second half, making 20. Their 34 total free throw attempts tied for second-most this season.
ZION CANNOT BE STOPPED. pic.twitter.com/LnHbif2m8l— The Bird Calls (@TheBirdCallsNO) February 21, 2021
Defensively, Hart and Lonzo Ball began to make like miserable for Boston’s shooters. The things that Stan Van Gundy had been begging his team to do, (rotate properly, contest shots, running shooters off of the three-point line), they did.
Stan Van Gundy stuck with the group that got the Pelicans back in the game, going with Ball, Hart, Ingram, Williamson, and Nico Melli down the stretch.
(Yes, Nico Melli. I was shocked too.)
And it worked.
New Orleans erased the remaining deficit when Ingram stepped into a three from the top of the arc with 4:11 on the clock.
Melli made his only shot of the game, a three-pointer off an assist from Zion on the next Pelicans possession to give New Orleans a 101-98 lead.
After Williamson converted a tough three-point play to put New Orleans up 108-106, it took a brilliant floater by Jayson Tatum to send the game into overtime, and setting up Ingram’s late heroics.
This game will go down in Pelicans lore no matter what. It was an exciting game, filled with big plays made by star players.
Zion Williamson looked confident as he strode off the Smoothie King Center Court. His smile was big.
It was a big win. But whether or not it means something will be based on how this team plays in the next game, and the one after that.
Because only then will we know if this was a turning point in the history of the franchise, or just another notable stop on the road that has led to disappointment too many times before.
The Pelicans are frustrating because they have the capability to fly so high, and the tendency to crash and burn.
For one Sunday afternoon, the Pels overcame the turbulence and landed safely with their 13th victory of the season.
To replicate this success, Stan Van Gundy may finally be forced to put Josh Hart into the starting lineup alongside Lonzo Ball. With two-plus days before the Pelicans play for a season split with the Detroit Pistons, the time is there to make the switch.
For 23 minutes the Pelicans played with passion. For 23 minutes they made you believe again. Imagine what could happen if they could do that for 33, or 43.