The New Orleans Pelicans have climbed another important step on the standings ladder.
With their thrilling 117-112 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday evening, the Pelicans moved into ninth in the Western Conference, putting them marginally ahead of the Lakers thanks to a 1-0 season series lead over the team from L.A.
While many would probably be inclined to point to final results, the victory over the Spurs shouldn’t be considered the far more impressive win on this current road trip.
There’s no doubt that forcing the typically mindful Spurs into 16 turnovers and also holding them to 91 points is a fantastic feat. New Orleans did set a new franchise record for the biggest margin of victory in San Antonio. However, don’t overlook the caliber of opponent that the Pels knocked off tonight.
The Hawks entered this contest on a 7-game home winning streak. Going back a little further, they’ve won 15 of their last 17 games inside State Farm Arena. Since Jan. 17, Atlanta’s offense was averaging 121.6 points and producing only 11.8 turnovers per game at home.
The Pelicans held the Hawks to 112 points and forced 16 turnovers.
New Orleans got off to a fantastic start by piling up nine steals in the first quarter to grab a 35-18 lead. During a 36-second stretch, the Pelicans came up with four thefts alone, prompting a 13-1 run.
That harassing defense set the tone and compelled the Hawks to play catch-up all game long. While they did knot the score at 108 apiece with 2:08 remaining in regulation, New Orleans closed things out superbly.
Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, reined in two important offensive rebounds. He hit a tough fadeaway jumper and made 3 of 4 from the free throw line.
Not to be outdone, Jose Alvarado made an excellent read to score a layup and later converted both his free throw attempts. Each of those moments gave New Orleans a four-point cushion to keep the difference at a two-possession game and ensure Atlanta would not enjoy any late-game heroics.
Things could have turned out much differently had Willie Green not re-inserted Alvarado with 4:30 left. But trusting his two-way player to finish the game proved pivotal as Alvarado wowed onlookers in his “second home“ of Atlanta with 15 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“I thought he was great,” Green said. “Defensively, he was all over the place, getting steals, doing what he does. Offensively, he was given us a lot on the offensive end. Just closing the game with him, putting him on Trae Young, causing havoc, and then having Herb guard Bogdanovic, is the way we wanted to finish.”
As it’s been a growing theme all season, the Pelicans enjoyed contributions from up and down their roster.
Herb Jones got New Orleans on the scoreboard with a 3-pointer and his steal plus assist led to the team’s next bucket. The rookie finished with 11 points, three rebounds and four steals, but along with Alvarado, their combined efforts on Atlanta’s star point guard were most instrumental.
Young, who was averaging 28.0 PPG on the season, was limited to 21 points. He made only 5 of his 14 field goals and also turned the ball over seven times.
Willy Hernangomez mustered a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double in 15 minutes of action. It’s incredible how he consistently stuffs the box score with such little playing time. He and Jaxson Hayes were absolute monsters on the offensive glass.
Hayes, who recorded 12 points and 12 rebounds, has made a real difference in the last four games. Tonight, for instance, he had an impressive block of Kevin Huerter. Hayes also drilled a 3-pointer when the Pelicans offense was struggling in the middle of the second quarter. Then there was this finish — how many 7-footers can make such an athletic play look so easy?
CJ McCollum struggled some with his shot (9-26) and committed a near costly turnover late, but there’s no denying the positive impact (+12 plus-minus) of his 25 points and eight assists. Stars carry a predominant amount of responsibility so expect to see some bad plays amid all the good.
For the first time this season, the Pelicans are trending up without their long-time star. They have won back to back games without Brandon Ingram. It’ll be interesting to see just how more potent they can be once he does return from his hamstring injury.
Up next, there’s no rest for the weary. The Pelicans will take the floor tomorrow in Charlotte against the Hornets. Going perfect on the road trip sounds too good to be true for a team that recently went 1-3 on the latest home stand, but they’re on the precipice of it.
Don’t count out the squad that just moved ahead of the LeBron James-led Lakers in the standings.