But they did.
With Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte’ Graham, Kira Lewis Jr. and Zion Williamson all unavailable, no one would have been surprised if Philly built a sizable lead early and then ran away with the game.
But they didn’t.
The Pelicans ultimately fell 117-107; however, the outcome of this contest was very much in doubt until the waning minutes. The 76ers seizing the victory required a highly focused effort throughout the entirety of the second half, and Joel Embiid performing like an MVP.
The All-Star center was simply unstoppable, dominating the entire floor for a final line of 42 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. Embiid made exactly half of his 24 field goal attempts and blistered the free throw line for 18 makes in 20 tries. And yet during his 33 minutes of action, the Sixers only mustered a +6 plus-minus.
With so many key players out for New Orleans, it was human nature for Philadelphia to start slowly. But the available Pelicans and Willie Green’s coaching staff deserve vast accolade for not agreeing to those terms.
The Pelicans jumped out to a quick 18-10 lead behind the play of Willy Hernangomez, who accounted for 11 of those points on a perfect 4-4 start from the field. “Billy” continued his strong play for the rest of the first half and entered the locker room with 21 points, five rebounds and one spectacular block of Embiid.
What's your @socios Top Moment of the first half?— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) January 26, 2022
Hernangomez went on to finish the game with a new career-high of 29 points on 11-15 shooting. He tallied his fourth double-double of the season by grabbing 10 rebounds.
“Honestly, it just goes to tell the world who he is if you didn’t know,” Nickeil Alexander-Walker said on Hernangomez’s box-stuffing night. “He’s an extremely hard worker. A very selfless person. Huge heart, great energy, and a great basketball player as well. A walking double-double anytime. He can sit out for five years and get a double-double in his first game.”
Not to be outdone from tip-off, NAW might have put together his best game of the season. A lot of his jumpers came in rhythm, but he never lost sight of getting downhill and attacking the lane or making a play for a teammate.
At halftime, ‘Kiel was sitting on 18 points, three assists and four 3-pointers. Even the usually low-percentage stepback was working.
Alexander-Walker, who wound up going toe-to-toe with Embiid for a stretch — both players accounted for the first 16 points to start the second half, finished with 31 points, four rebounds, five assists and five 3-pointers.
The Pelicans were fighting so hard and playing to the best of their abilities — they totaled just two turnovers in the first half — that Josh Hart dropped a Tweet in the middle of the second quarter after some words were exchanged between Jose Alvarado and Embiid.
The incident led to double technicals, but it exemplified the amount of heart that each Pelican poured into this matchup from start to finish.
With 7:53 remaining in regulation, the score was all knotted up at 95 points apiece. But then the more talented team on the floor grabbed control of the game.
“No moral victories, but we all are extremely proud of what our group did, “Green said in postgame. “First, the professionalism. A lot of guys who haven’t been getting the playing time, they just stay ready.
“Our whole squad, they came in tonight just with the mentality that we’re going to get after it. I’m proud of how we fought.”
Herb Jones, who provided several more defensive highlights, finished with 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and a couple of blocked shots.
Jose Alvarado, who had to leave the game for a bit after colliding into a hard Embiid screen, tallied 11 points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Jaxson Hayes added 15 points and five rebounds off the bench.
Up next, the Pelicans come home to prepare for their next back-to-back set, facing the Nuggets on Thursday and the Celtics, Friday.