The New Orleans Pelicans did what they needed to do Thursday evening: Get out of Oklahoma City with a victory.
From that standpoint, the mission was accomplished. They beat the Thunder by a final score of 109-95.
Coupled with a Warriors 126-114 loss to the Timberwolves an hour earlier, New Orleans now sits three games behind Golden State for the final play-in tournament spot. Try as they might, this season isn’t over because the Pelicans will face the Warriors three times in the remaining nine games on the schedule.
Zion Williamson led the way with 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Brandon Ingram added 24 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Willy Hernangomez replaced Steven Adams (right MTP sprain) in the starting lineup and the backup center and finished with his eighth double-double of the season (13 points, 10 rebounds).
A fun fact: the Pels are 3-1 in games when “Billy” has ran with the starters.
While Lonzo Ball struggled with his outside shot (0-8 on 3-point attempts), he put together another fine all-around line of six points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals. His activity was good, especially on the boards with Adams out. Zo was far from the only Pelican to struggle on the perimeter though.
Until Ingram’s 3-point make with 40.6 seconds left in regulation, the starters had combined to miss their first 17 shot attempts from deep. For the game, New Orleans finished with just five makes in 29 tries from 3-point range.
The other four made triples came from James Johnson (12 points, three rebounds, two steals) and Naji Marshall (eight points, seven rebounds and three assists). These two reserves have quickly become fan favorites and for good reason.
JJ and Naji are fun to watch. They make plays everywhere. They make the correct reads with the ball in their hands or not. They both feature a wide range of skills. They always give effort. And the IQ is there — that’s important because awareness is not a strong suit on this team as a whole.
Jaxson Hayes delivered at least three highlights by my count — two thunderous dunks and a block — en route to eight points, seven rebounds and two rejections.
Fun fact #2: Since January 30, Hayes is shooting 82.6% from the free throw line. Following a 2-2 performance tonight, he’s now made 57 of his last 69 attempts from the charity stripe.
There’s legitimate hope, I think, of Hayes being able to knock down a few jumpers within games down the road. Having a big on this team pop when setting picks instead of rolling every time would help confuse opposing defenses and increase the spacing some.
As I insinuated earlier, though, this was far from a flawless victory and Stan Van Gundy called it “a bit of a slog, for sure” afterwards to media.
The Pelicans got off to a slow start out of the gates in OKC, trailing 15-11 midway through the first quarter. Although they reversed course and closed that frame out well, a 31-20 lead evaporated quickly in the second. The Thunder went on a 20-10 run and New Orleans’ lead was cut to a single point with 6:22 left in the first half.
Understandably, the energy and focus was missing after a tough loss in Denver 24 hours earlier and Zion confirmed this notion.
“The second half of a back-to-back, I think everybody was just kind of mentally tired,” Williamson said to postgame media. “But at the end of the first half, we all woke up and made a run.”
That run was a 19-3 spark which resulted in a 60-43 halftime lead.
Although the Pelicans enjoyed a double-digit lead for the entirety of the second half — leading by as much as 20 points with 6:41 left in regulation, a victory was guaranteed until the final few minutes.
That’s a bit unsettling because the Thunder couldn’t buy a bucket (38.2 FG%, 28.2 3PT%) or limit mistakes (22 turnovers). In their next matchup, the Pelicans will likely have to execute much better from start to finish.
While a date against the Timberwolves this coming Saturday doesn’t strike fear when looking at the overall NBA standings, Minnesota has been playing much better of late. The Wolves are on a current 4-game winning streak and they’ll have a lot of weapons at their disposal in Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell.
The Pels took care of business tonight, but they’ll need to do it again in a couple of days and the test should be stiffer. If they can, next week’s back-to-back at home against the Warriors will be the most meaningful games of the season.
What a wonderful scenario that would be considering fans of this team have endured more disappointment than expected up to this point.