On this beautiful Sunday afternoon in New Orleans — hovering right around 70 degrees with loads of sunshine, basketball followers across southern Louisiana were treated to an unexpected but thoroughly fulfilling NBA game amid the backdrop of March Madness.
The Pelicans traded punches with the Denver Nuggets, the hottest team of late in the Western Conference, and they wound up posting a 113-108 upset victory. Most splendidly, New Orleans was propelled by their two All-Stars in clutch minutes without their starting point guard.
Lonzo Ball was ruled out about half an hour before tip-off due to a right hip flexor strain and his absence was immediately felt. The Pelicans committed nine turnovers in the first quarter and the offense looked completely discombobulated. My fear was that New Orleans wouldn’t be able to find their footing for the rest of the game. Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The Pelicans cleaned up their act quickly, committing seven turnovers over the final three frames, and the inconsistent offensive start was buoyed by Steven Adams’ work on the glass and a sizable boost from the bench. The New Orleans center had six offensive rebounds in the first half, giving Nikola Jokic all kinds of grief, and the reserves created a great pace in the second quarter that completely shifted the momentum in the game.
A 36-21 winning margin in that second frame paved the way to a 58-51 halftime lead for the Pelicans, and it felt like the confidence created from that dominant stretch created a spark that stayed lit throughout the final 24 minutes.
As expected though, the Nuggets made a second half charge, seizing a 95-92 advantage just past the halfway point of the fourth, but the Pelicans didn’t roll over. In a game featuring Jamal Murray and Jokic, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram were the two most impactful players on the court over the final 5:18 of regulation.
While Zion hasn’t suffered individual lapses in clutch-time minutes, Ingram hasn’t been able to say the same. Before today, he was shooting 29.3% from the field and 25% from the three-point line spread out over 70 minutes, playing a big part in New Orleans’ 8-12 clutch record. Two missed free throws that would have put the Pelicans up five with 7.2 seconds left in last week’s defeat to the Trail Blazers was still very fresh in all minds.
No such hiccups this Sunday afternoon, though.
The two New Orleans All-Stars produced identical perfect lines over that important final stretch: eight points, 2-2 FGs and 4-4 FTs. For the game, there was more similarity.
Ingram finished with 30 points, six rebounds, eight assists, two threes and two steals while Zion added a line of 30 points, six rebounds and one key block.
On the Denver side, Jokic and Murray combined for 52 points, 13 rebounds and 17 assists — a wonderful effort, but it wasn’t enough to best Ingram and Zion’s 60 and slew of other tangible positives.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker (20 points, three rebounds, three threes, two blocks) started in place of Ball and he got off to a great start on both sides of the ball. He had his usual deflections on one end but provided a much needed scoring punch on the other. Eight of NAW’s 20 points came in the pivotal second quarter, helping flip an eight-point deficit into a one-point lead.
Josh Hart was also instrumental in the victory, playing all 12 minutes of the final quarter (Zion did as well, did you notice?) to finish with an all-around line of 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and a couple of threes.
While Kira Lewis Jr., Jaxson Hayes and Nicolo Melli didn’t put up eye-catching stats in the box score, I felt various contributions were incredibly useful to New Orleans’ run in the second quarter.
So the Pelicans knocked off another elite team with championship aspirations, and the victory provided a salivating look through a window of what the future may hold — the two cornerstones balling out with other key rotation players making positive plays.
Yes, New Orleans remains a tantalizing team, but let’s limit today’s performance to one step in the right direction. Before they get to ascend up a level, multiple good steps must be strung together. Here’s to hoping we see a second one taken against the Lakers in New Orleans on Tuesday.