There are always a few regular season games that are nearly inexplicable.
After falling behind 9-2 out of the gates, Naji Marshall got the ball rolling for New Orleans, attacking the paint relentlessly to score 11 points in the first quarter. The rest of his teammates followed suit. The Pelicans proceeded to dominate the action for the rest of the first half, taking a 64-46 lead into the locker room at the break.
The Second Line was particularly effective in creating New Orleans’ sizable advantage. Jose Alvarado splashed home a trio of 3-balls, Dyson Daniels aided the momentum with his passing and defense, Devonte’ Graham poured in seven points and four assists, and Jaxson Hayes provided his most impactful minutes of the season.
But before Hayes went on to wind up with the game ball, the Thunder grabbed control of the contest and put themselves in great position to walk away with the win.
Following a Trey Murphy 3-pointer that put the Pelicans ahead 73-55 with 7:37 left in the third quarter, the Thunder went on a 37-10 run. It was a shock to everyone’s system. An offense that rarely struggles for any significant length of time ... struggled.
The odds of leaving OKC with a victory honestly felt slim to none for New Orleans. The offense looked all out of sorts and the Pels couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean, connecting on only 2 of 18 field goals. The Thunder, on the other hand, made 13 shots in the same span, including six 3-pointers.
Yet after Mike Muscala put OKC up 92-83 with a 3-bomb early in the fourth, the Pelicans started to hold their ground and soon began to chip away at the deficit behind two unlikely scoring threats.
Herb Jones scored 13 of his 15 points from the 8:49 mark of the fourth quarter onwards. It was vintage Herb of being in the right place at the right time — his cuts are such a delight, but he consistently put a lot of pressure on the rim. He made 7 of 8 free throws during this stretch.
Naturally, Jones’ defense also played a huge role in the outcome.
While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was largely unstoppable — 44 points on 17 of 29 shooting, there were key moments down the stretch when the Pels’ defense did hold.
In addition to Jones’ individual work, the Pelicans forced Shai, the best driver in the league, to settle for jumpers. Then they started face-guarding him. Not only did Herb not allow him to catch the ball, Hayes also took an important turn in denying the soon-to-be All-Star.
“Gilgeous-Alexander is such a good player, we decided, look, whenever he gives the ball up, we’ve just got to face-guard him,” Willie Green said. “Not let him catch it and force the other guys to have to make plays — a really good adjustment by Coach Jarron Collins.”
Forcing others on the Thunder roster to beat them worked.
New Orleans outscored OKC 10-2 over the remaining 2:55 of regulation, and then Hayes’ athleticism and wingspan led to several big stops, including one on Josh Giddey after a mind-numbing turnover by CJ McCollum.
Jaxson Hayes leaving it all out there on the court pic.twitter.com/AgyauHKtFn— Pelicans Film Room (@PelsFilmRoom) December 24, 2022
Although Hayes missed two free throws to close out the game — and a tip-out by Murphy nearly resulted in Shai sinking a half-court heave to force double OT, the Pelicans wouldn’t have won without Jaxson’s efforts on both ends.
“Gutsy performance on all of our guys’ part,” Green said. “But what I said in the locker room to Jaxson was, No. 1, not only myself but everyone is extremely proud of what he just did tonight on the floor. It is very difficult to not play and stay ready, stay working on your game, stay watching film. He and Coach Darnell do a great job of just getting in the gym and getting shots up. Tonight was preparation meets opportunity. He took full advantage of it. We don’t get that win without Jaxson Hayes.”
Similar to Jones, Hayes scored 14 points from the 8:49 mark of the fourth quarter onwards. Hayes finished with a line of 21 points, six rebounds and four assists, easily his best output of the season.
Trey Murphy led the Pelicans with 23 points, adding five rebounds and two steals. He also made 5 of 8 from behind the arc, keeping a very fun streak intact.
When Murphy has made four or more 3s in a game this season, the Pelicans are undefeated, improving to 7-0 after his five triples in OKC.
Naji Marshall and CJ McCollum each finished with 17 points, and Jonas Valanciunas had 10 points and seven rebounds.
“This is a relentless group,” Green said. “We couldn’t be more proud of what they’re doing. It’s a credit to David Griffin, Trajan, Swin and our whole staff. They do a great job of going after high-character, highly competitive guys. You’ve seen it on display. I thought tonight was a tough back-to-back, but we just gutted it out. Sometimes you have to do that in this league.”
The Pelicans did show pluck and persevere. I admit it, I had written them off for dead with oodles of time left in the fourth. How could one not after watching that enormous second-half run by the Thunder?
There was no Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. The Pelicans were on the second night of a back-to-back, with many minds surely looking somewhat ahead to the Christmas weekend. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a one-man wrecking crew.
Sometimes it’s good to be proven dead wrong. Thank you, Pels. A truly thoughtful gift to the city of New Orleans just hours before Santa rides across the sky.