It appears big things might be in store down the stretch of this season.
In their first game out of the All-Star break, the New Orleans Pelicans began strongly but finished even better in downing the NBA’s winningest team by an impressive 117-102 margin.
Coming into this matchup, the Phoenix Suns had the league’s third-ranked defense, giving up an average of 105.5 points per game. The Pelicans scored 31 points in the first quarter and then landed a haymaker out of halftime, tallying 42 points in the third frame.
The 15-point loss was the second-most lopsided home defeat of the season for the Suns and their first inside Footprint Center since January 8.
Sitting at the heart of New Orleans’ dominant victory, Brandon Ingram (28 points, five rebounds, seven assists) and CJ McCollum (32 points, six rebounds, four assists) finally discovered that elusive comfort zone.
In their first five games together, McCollum showed little issue in acclimating to his new team, but Ingram’s numbers were noticeable down. Admittedly, Brandon looked to be running on some tired legs before the break; however, it was readily apparent that good synergy between the two players didn’t exist yet either.
There was no such evidence of that problem tonight.
“I think we’re just starting to figure it out,” Willie Green said in postgame. “There’s a lot of work in front of us, but those two guys were spectacular, just playing off each other and the ball was moving a bit more. They can still get to pick-and-rolls, isolations, whatever they do, but I like they played more off each other tonight. Great win.”
In addition to several helpful practices over the past couple of days plus McCollum having a chance to study more film since a Feb. 17th loss to the Mavericks, don’t undersell the importance of the star duo having dinner with Willie Green on Thursday evening.
“We had a good dinner last night,” McCollum said to Bally Sports’ Jen Hale. “Got some good wine in us and talked about the rest of the season on what we want to accomplish. I think when you break bread with people, I think it carries out onto the court.”
We’re only six games into this new era, yet with how CJ and BI already interact with one another off the court, one would think they’ve been together for much longer. Yeah, don’t let anyone tell you that trading for McCollum wasn’t a good move. We’ve seen evidence of CJ’s leadership and individual ability from day one, but now his talents are weaving into the Pelicans’ fabric.
New Orleans shot a season-best 41 free throws. They won the fastbreak, points in the paint and points off turnovers battles. They held Phoenix to one of their worst offensive performances of the season, both in terms of points scored and field goal percentage.
Chris Paul sitting out certainly hurt the odds of victory, but the Suns were previously undefeated (5-0) in the regular season and playoffs without their starting point guard.
Jonas Valanciunas (18 points, 17 rebounds) was extremely solid, especially in pick-and-roll actions with McCollum; however, his heartfelt message to the people of Ukraine in postgame was clearly the highlight.
“First of all, I want to say that my heart and prayers goest to Ukrainian people. Innocent people who are suffering, dying and losing their loved ones — men who are defending country. War is not a solution. War has to stop.”
Valanciunas’ starting front court mate, Jaxson Hayes, played less than five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble but made his impact felt in the third quarter. All his points (nine) and rebounds (six) came in the frame, adding a good block, fun assist and dead-center three-pointer too.
Although both Herb Jones (0-9) and Naji Marshall (2-6) struggled with putting the ball through the rim, their defense played a big part in the win.
The forwards combined for seven steals and they did about as good of a job as one can expect against Devin Booker. The Suns’ interim point guard finished with 30 points, but he required 24 shots to reach that total. He also committed four turnovers.
Tony Snell knocked down three of the Pelicans’ eight made 3-pointers, finishing with nine points and seven rebounds. Devonte’ Graham added 11 points. While Jose Alvarado failed to find the scoring column, his +15 plus-minus in 11 minutes passed the eye test.
For the first time this season, Garrett Temple received a coach’s decision DNP.
With 22 games remaining, the Pelicans are tied with the Spurs for 11th in the Western Conference standings, trailing the Trail Blazers by a single game.
Up next, the Pelicans travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers on Sunday. LeBron’s team fell the Clippers Friday night, cementing their hold on ninth for the time being. If New Orleans manages to eke out a win though, they’ll move to within 2.5 games of the Lakers.
Things may be on the verge of getting spicy very quickly in this second half of the season.