The thing is, the Rockets shouldn’t have enjoyed a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter, turning things into such a nail-biter. The Pelicans held a 78-60 lead at the 7:24 mark of the third, and up to that point, they were on cruise control.
The first 12 minutes witnessed a flawless performance from an offensive standpoint. In scoring 34 points, the Pelicans posted 11 assists. This was accompanied by one turnover, which came with 11.1 seconds left when Usman Garuba stripped Jonas Valanciunas of the ball in the post.
Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. combined to shoot a perfect 10 for 10 from the floor, with Devonte’ Graham hitting 2 of 3 field goals. The whole team didn’t miss a free throw either, knocking down all seven attempts.
The Pelicans widened their lead in the second frame, going up by as many as 18, before entering halftime with a 63-50 lead.
Then five minutes into the third, Jalen Green happened at about the same time that New Orleans stopped playing for all intents and purposes.
Green scored 15 of his game-high 33 points to power the Rockets back from the dead. The Pelicans did very little to dissuade him. He literally knocked down three 3-pointers from the same side of the floor.
During that mammoth Houston run, the Pelicans suffered six turnovers and made only 3 of 11 shots. They only got to the free throw line once, thanks to a 3-second technical foul on Alperen Sengun.
For as badly as the Rockets played through the first 29 minutes, the Pelicans practically mirrored the poor performance afterwards. Well, until Jose Alvarado said enough was enough in the fourth.
An Alvarado 3-pointer quickly breathed some life into the Pelicans and shocked crowd, cutting an eight-point deficit to five.
Less than two minutes later, a patented Grand Theft Alvarado steal and score brought about more, “I think I can,” sensations, along with Jose arena chants.
“Just play defense, picking up full (court), getting into a certain player’s head, and just getting steals, doing the little things,” Alvarado said. “We’ve got big time players. I am not worried about scoring. I just want to do the little things, make sure I’m boxing out, getting every rebound, make sure they know that if they miss a rebound, I tell them ‘Yo, you got to pick your stuff up.’ So, it’s more about trying to be a leader in my role and be a star in my role, not necessarily a star in everybody’s role, just be a star in my role.”
Following another steal, the rest of Jose’s teammates joined the fray.
Nance, who finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, had multiple key offensive boards to help close the deficit. A McCollum bucket knotted the score at 100 and the Pelicans never trailed again.
Williamson added six points to rebuild the Pelicans’ lead.
He finished with 26 points, but honestly he could’ve gone for 40+. The Rockets had no answers for him, never bringing earnest double teams. One-on-one, he bullied Jabari Smith and Usman Garuba, as evidenced by 8 of 9 shooting and 10 of 12 makes from the free throw line.
Lastly, Ingram helped cap off the victory, with a 21-footer proving the final nail in Houston’s coffin.
BI was headed for a down performance but his strong close produced a line of 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals.
The most interesting thing witnessed on the evening, Willie Green changed up his player rotations significantly.
“We are trying to get going early in the games, and not be down 8-9 points,” Green said. “So, we wanted to try and adjust our substitution patterns a bit. We’ll continue to look at it. Once again, I like where our team is right now. We’ve got to work through some things and in order to be the team we think we can be, we are going to have some hard games.”
Previously, Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy were usually the first players off his bench, with Williamson seemingly always the first to sit after about six minutes of action.
Tonight, Nance was the first man off the bench, replacing Jonas Valanciunas at about the seven-minute mark in the first and third quarters.
While Graham leapfrogged Alvarado, Jose wound up seeing more minutes than his reserve backcourt partner in the first and second halves.
Closing with Jose seems like a good idea moving forward, considering he was directly responsible for New Orleans regaining the momentum.
The reserve point guard is always scrappy, always finds a way to produce a turnover, but his two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter were as big as any steal.
“Jose was the X-factor in this one,” Williamson said. “His energy, his consistent ball pressure really carried us in the fourth quarter.”
Alvarado finished with 12 points, five assists and three steals, before getting ejected after a small altercation with Kevin Porter Jr., who was also tossed.
But before he left, he raised the roof. Multiple times. And the crowd roared in response at every insistence by Alvarado for greater noise.
As for any fines that may follow from the NBA for Alvarado’s ejection, Williamson told media in postgame that he’ll pay it. And he’ll do the same for Naji Marshall and Herb Jones if the situation arises, too.
The best way to summarize this game is, the Pelicans escaped. Were it not for an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech, they would have likely dropped another game to an opponent living in or near the cellar of the Western Conference.
Thank you for that, Jose.