They’re still in it.
Every time you get ready to count the New Orleans Pelicans out, every time you’re ready to swear to never let them do it to you again, the Pelicans get off the mat, and come out for another round.
New Orleans shot 11-of-15 from the floor in the fourth quarter, with Herb Jones going a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor, including making both of his three-point attempts and all four of his free throws, to hold off the Denver Nuggets, 113-105.
His 18 points in the fourth quarter are the third-most by any Pelicans rookie in a single period.
It was a night of offensive and defensive excellence for plenty of Pelicans.
Jones finished with a game-high 25 points, just one off of his career high. He was one of five Pels in double figures. Willie Green put the ball in the rookie’s hands; he delivered thunderous dunks and graceful euro finishes around the reigning MVP. If he didn’t have the basketball already, Herb was taking it away from the Nuggets on the other end of the floor.
“Herb just continues to get better,” Willie Green said. “He puts the work in in practice. He’s a willing learner. We’re just seeing all of his hard work on display and we saw it tonight on both ends of the floor.”
Brandon Ingram attacked the rim, creating for himself and others. BI scored 23 points and dished out a career-high 12 assists while turning it over once. Once.
Jaxson Hayes continued to look like a terror at the four spot. In his third start playing power forward, Jax went a perfect 9-for-9 from the floor, 4-for4 from the free throw line for 22 points, and grabbed 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
“Jaxson was phenomenal tonight,“ Green said, “He didn’t miss a shot. So number one, that was great for us. But he executed on both ends of the floor. He guarded Jokic late in the game and gave us a different look with JV in foul trouble. I thought his energy was great. He’s given us a huge boost, a huge lift.
“We talked about it before the game, just having him at the four. That size, that length. His ability to rebound the ball and get out and run. It’s been helping us.”
Over those last three games, Hayes is averaging 15.3 points and 8.3 boards while shooting 87.5%.
Once again, Jonas Valanciunas went toe-to-toe with Nikola Jokic, and once again he held his own with 18 points and seven rebounds.
New Orleans outshot, outrebounded, outhustled, and flat out outplayed the Nuggets over the final 12 minutes.
They were clutch.
The Pels snapped a two-game losing streak to the Nuggets, making the series 1-2 with one more game to play on the season.
They also picked up back-to-back wins for the first time since Jan. 20-24, and earned consecutive road wins for the first time this season.
In fact, the Pelicans hadn’t won two straight road games since Apr. 29-May 1, 2021.
They weren’t perfect in doing so. The backcourt continues to be a disappointment. Devonte’ Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and even Jose Alvarado failed to add much other than minutes.
But when the Pelicans needed a stop, they got the stop. When someone had to make a shot, someone did.
Denver outscored New Orleans by 33 points from beyond the arc, and the Pels still won. They were only +5 at the free throw line, and they still won.
Friday’s win was a testament to two things: the incredible job that Willie Green and his staff have done, and with all of their flaws, the Pelicans finally won’t bow down.
There are player pieces that need to be added for this franchise to reach the next level, but it has already found some key elements that had been missing for years.
The 2021-22 Pelicans have an identity and, with or without Zion Williamson, they have some hope.
When they wake up Saturday morning, the Pels will be even with Portland in the loss column and just one-half game out of 10th in the Western Conference standings (and only 4.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for ninth).
Something’s different about these Pelicans.