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Jose Alvarado, the NBA’s best underdog story, leads Pelicans to 121-106 victory over Nuggets

The backup point guard had a night that he, nor anyone in attendance, will not soon forget

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

When his playing days are in the rearview mirror, Jose Alvarado could go down as one of the best undrafted players in NBA history. Just how he climbs up the list, though, depends upon how often he affects the outcome of games over the rest of his career. If tonight was any indication, he’s still just getting started.

The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Denver Nuggets 121-106 on Sunday evening because the game’s smallest player had the biggest impact, outshining a two-time MVP as well as teammate that is back on track to being regarded as one of the best to ever lace them up.

With 3:06 remaining in the first quarter, the Nuggets had built a commanding 30-16 lead. The Pelicans had no early answers for either Jokic or Jamal Murray. Then Alvarado entered and proceeded to singlehandedly wreck Denver’s chances for a win.

“Z always tells me, like Z literally tells me every time, be yourself, be you,” Alvarado said. “He always does that little smirk and says, ‘be you.’ He told me, just today, he told me to stay high. They’re going to hope I’m hitting you right away and that’s what he did. They was hoping and he let it go. Today, it obviously felt good.”

Jose poured in eight points in the first frame, jolting the Pelicans to life. He proceeded to make his first six field goals — four of them from 3-point distance. By the time he missed his first shot in the middle of the second, his 16 points had already pulled the Pelicans within a point of the Nuggets’ lead.

It may sound crazy to those who didn’t watch, but those who did know that it’s not blasphemy to say Alvarado was literally more dominant in his minutes than either Nikola Jokic or Zion Williamson.

Once the final buzzer sounded, the great Denver center walked off the court with a line of 32 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists. Williamson had 25 points, six rebounds and four assists. Meanwhile, Alvarado found himself getting doused with water in the midst of his postgame interview after blowing away previous bests and setting numerous records for a player with his background.

In addition to knocking down 8 of 11 attempts from 3-point range, Alvarado scored 38 points off the New Orleans bench. That’s the most points off the bench by any undrafted player since starters were first tracked in 1970-71, per ESPN Stats & Info.

That 38-point performance also topped Marcus Thornton’s record of 37 points for any reserve in franchise history.

Those in attendance didn’t know they had just watched records fall, but they still gave Alvarado a standing ovation with 58.6 seconds left in regulation. Zion posited a good theory afterwards.

“In this world, you know just as humans, we love an underdog story,” Williamson said. “That’s just the nature of the game. People love underdog stories. You always want to see the team or the person people consider the best, you build like a rise and fall narrative.

“So to see someone like Jose, not the tallest guy out there, doesn’t have a lot of the physical attributes that the prototypical NBA player would have, but he’s out there. And he’s not just out there, he’s making an impact — he’s the X factor for us. So when people see that and he’s telling them to stand up and get hype, it’s infectious energy. You can’t help but want to be a part of that.”

It’s incredible to ponder just how far Alvarado has come since the start of his rookie season. Remember, he wasn’t a part of the regular rotation for the first two and a half months. During that stretch, he often asked teammates, coaches, those close to the team on what he needed to do to get any playing time.

“To see where he was, just asking me questions — and I was only in my third year — and to see him now having nights like this, it’s amazing,” Williamson said. “The love he gets, he deserves it all and more. Cause even away from the court, he’s still that same dude. Can’t help but love him.”

Alvarado was undoubtedly the most deserving of the game ball, but other role players shined brightly too.

Trey Murphy, who finished with 12 points, three rebounds and three assists, captivated the audience with several poster dunks over Jokic in the third quarter. Naji Marshall was a huge positive again, making things happen as evidenced by his six assists, two steals and a block in 24 minutes. Then there was Billy.

Willy Hernangomez, who had seen action in only nine of the first 22 games before tonight, came up aces after Jonas Valanciunas got into foul trouble. Not only did he show he was ready to contribute, he outperformed Jokic.

“The thing about Willy is, every game he’s looking at me with that look, “I wanna play, I wanna play, I wanna play,’” Willie Green said. “His job and position, at times, can be difficult, coming off the summer that he had — MVP, winning the championship with his team — and then not getting the minutes that maybe we all know that at times he should get.”

Hernangomez finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists and posted a +20 plus-minus in just 20 minutes.

“We have a lot of depth,” Williamson said. “I say it a lot, and I don’t just see it because they are my teammates, I say it because I mean it. This is a special team. People forget that Willy (Hernangomez) won MVP in the Euro League. That is not an easy accomplishment because the rules are harder over there than in the NBA.

“Me and Willy (Hernangomez) talk all the time and I tell him how I wish he could play more. He understands the name of the game and that we have a deep team. Whenever his number is called, he always steps up.”

The win over the Nuggets moves the Pelicans, winners of nine of their last 11, into sole possession of second place in the Western Conference.

The 15-8 start to this season is remarkably good on its own, but more accolade is deserving due to the number of key injuries. The regular starting lineup has appeared together in only 10 of their first 23 games. Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have each missed a lot of time.

Yet here they are, sitting very close to the best in the West, and on this night, the special man was Jose Alvarado, who is sure to go down as one of New Orleans’ favorite players of all time when it’s all said and done.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.